Balancing classic and contemporary: The Piano Guys


Jared Stranberg

A photo of the Piano Guys
The Piano Guys performed at the Orpheum Theater on Nov. 16. Photo courtesy of The Piano Guys

When I used to think of classical music, a few images came to mind. Fancy theaters, grand orchestras, bright stages and boring music that is roughly 300-years-old.

I most certainly would not have thought of one piano, three cellos, smoke machines, colorful lights and two guys playing music featuring motifs of modern and classical pieces simultaneously. Which is why The Piano Guys are both unique and excellent.

When I first discovered the Piano Guys, it was roughly eight years ago. Their video “Cello Wars” had just gone viral, and as a huge nerd, I was looking for any Star Wars content I could get. This was also the time when I didn’t appreciate classical music. I thought it was just boring music written by people long dead and played by a mass of people whose faces looked equally dead.

Thanks to this group of musicians, however that changed. Steven Sharp Nelson, the cellist of the group, said that they as a group aim to draw the connection between modern and classical music. To show that today’s music isn’t fundamentally separate from the classical, but rather a descendant.

With only four members; a pianist, a cellist and two producers, my take on classical approaches to music took a 180. My appreciation for all music grew suddenly, knowing that there’s more than one way to hear everything. After hearing about them so long ago, I didn’t know what to expect from a live performance. Since the only type of concert I have ever willingly attended were metal and rock concerts, I simply hoped it wouldn’t be boring.

And they surely didn’t disappoint.

Shortly past 7:30 Saturday evening, the lights went out in the Orpheum Theater of Omaha; smoke filled the stage and colorful lights beamed. In that instant I forgot the fanciful, refined appearance of the environment and it felt instead like I was at a pop or rock concert.

They opened with Coldplay and Avicii’s “Sky Full of Stars,” taking the upbeat and ethereal nature from the source material and making it even more magical. There’s a certain beauty that comes from taking the words from a song and replacing it with musicianship and emotion. With a piano, a cello and some bonus electronics, the words become unnecessary through sheer quality of performance.

During the evening, songs like One Republic’s “Secrets,” “Let it Go” from Disney’s “Frozen” and even a song as recent as Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” were all featured. Many of these songs featured hints of classical pieces from Beethoven or Vivaldi or presented videos with guests.

Emotions such as wonder and awe weren’t all that the audience felt through the night. The two performers also had comedic bits. The chemistry was palpable, as they mentioned they’ve been playing together for over 20 years. Cheeky jabs at each other, some mild self-deprecation and a roast of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major” brought the whole theater to laughter.

The close, however, I found to be on an entirely different level. In a poignant moment, Steven told the story behind their final song, a mashup of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” and John Newton’s poem “Amazing Grace.” He explained that his father had lost two wives to cancer throughout his life and       despite this, remains undeterred in his love and grace. He also mentioned his faith, attributing the success of The Piano Guys to the grace of God. While there are many artists and bands that like to publicly recite platitudes thanking God and the fans, I felt that this was genuine, which made their last performance even more compelling.

Truthfully, I found every performance to be enjoyable. The performers wore their emotions well, as if the music was moving them through every song. The group even got me to like Disney’s “Let it Go” (but you won’t get me to admit that face-to-face).

And if there was any proof that they succeeded in their goals as musicians, it’s that they made me want to start playing piano again.