The Piano Guys – Wonders – Portrait/Sony Masterworks 88843 08780 2, 47:48 ****:
(Al van der Beek – piano, percussion, vocal; Jon Schmidt – piano, vocal; Steven Sharp Nelson – electric, acoustic, carbonfiber and steel cello, cello percussion, percussion, piano; Gigi Romnery – percussion; Jake Bowen – percussion; Shweta Subram – vocal)
For decades, classically-trained musicians have attempted crossovers to pop audiences. Conversely, pop acts have tried to reinvent classical music (one notable example was Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Pictures At An Exhibition). Recently David Garrett (https://www.audaud.com/?p=34506) and 2 Cellos (https://www.audaud.com/?p=29204) released albums utilizing the hybrid approach to pop and classical. Now, internet sensations The Piano Guys are becoming the standard bearer for this genre. Despite the moniker, Piano Guys is comprised of pianist Jon Schmidt, cellist Steven Sharp Nelson (and there are a variety of electric and acoustic cellos), producer/videographer Paul Anderson and songwriter/producer Al van der Beek.
The Piano Guys reached their audience via YouTube. Several of their songs are clever renditions and “mashup-like” arrangements of classical (“Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony”) and rock material (Coldplay’s “Paradise”). Some of their videos have 20 million viewers. Their YouTube channel boasts three million subscribers and half a billion views. Now signed by Sony Masterworks, they have released compilations of their internet hits on The Piano Guys and The Piano Guys 2. Both of these albums have reached No. 1 on the U.S. New Age and Classical charts.
Wonders is another interesting collection of songs. The opening track, “The Story Of My Life” infuses the One Direction mid-tempo pop confection with cinematic lyricism. The musical chemistry and virtuosity of Jon Schmidt and Nelson is on full display. Next up is an unexpected mixture of “Let It Go” (from the Disney movie “Frozen”) and Vivaldi’s “Concerto No.4 in F Minor”. The intense, driving rhythm of Vivaldi (in unison leads) is meshed seamlessly with the ubiquitous pop tune (with subtle counterpoints). A better arrangement can be found on “Ants Marching/Ode To Joy”. Dave Matthews’ quirky, nuanced tempos are captured with country swing string and muscular piano licks. The Beethoven touch is subtle.
The arrangements (mostly by Schmidt, van der Beek and Nelson) are creative and dynamic. The theatric fluency of Hans Zimmer is underscored by the emotional resonance of Chopin in “Kung Fu Piano/Cello Ascending”. Both pieces are familiar, but feel new. The various cello tones (including steel) are compelling. The homage to Batman composers (“Batman Evolution”) includes themes from the films and the irrepressible TV theme. Again, the musical concept is grandiose and displays great flourishes. Invoking elegiac spirituality, “The Mission/How Great Thou Are” is undertaken with instrumental simplicity in a piano/cello duet. It is a melodic hymnal, resonating with pathos. Taking on “Pictures At An Exhibition” the duo maintains the pulse of “Promenade” with atmospheric romanticism.
Piano Guys has three original compositions that emphasize contemporary structures. “Summer Jam” displays a soulful, New Age vibe. Schmidt’s lead is both delicate and forceful. On “Because Of You”, there are percussive festive accents, with harmonic interludes. A World Music chorus (van der Beek) adds a new dimension. It is impressive that a musical duo (although on “Don’t You Worry Child”, guest vocalist Shweta Subram lends a hand) construct a full band ambiance.
Wonders may be difficult to categorize, but easy to enjoy!
TrackList: Story Of My Life; Let It Go; Ants Marching/Ode To Joy; Fathers’ Eyes; Kung Fu Piano: Cello Ascends; Summer Jam; Batman Evolution; Don’t You Worry Child; Home; The Mission/How Great Thou Art; Because Of You; Pictures At An Exhibition