Wednesday, 4 September 2013


The Star Theatre
Monday (2 September 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 September 2013 with the title "Pachelbel? It's Rock-abel Canon".

Two nights ago, a cello and piano duo played to an audience of close to five thousand at The Star. They were neither Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, nor Steven and Stephen (Isserlis and Hough), but Steven Sharp Nelson and Jon Schmidt. Who? They are the improbably named The Piano Guys, two married men pushing middle age who looked more at home in a human genome lab or FedEx office than onstage.

It all started when pianist Schmidt walked into a piano shop in Utah to practise, and its owner Paul Anderson started making videos of him and cellist Nelson which went viral on a YouTube channel. They were called The Piano Guys in order to promote the piano shop. A quarter of a billion hits later, the duo has become a legitimate phenomenon and bestseller in the crossover genre.

Purists will not deem them a classical act, but who cares? They modus operandi is simple: adapt a popular classical melody, do a cover of Adele, One Direction or U2, sometimes combine thematic elements of a number of songs in a “mash-up”, throw in comedic schtick, perform with passion and panache, and there you have it.

Hits from their channel and first album were relived, such as Titanium (which uses Faure’s Pavane), Bourne Vivaldi (adapting a double cello concerto by the Italian), Michael Meets Mozart (two Michael Jackson songs modified as to be almost unrocognisable) and one marrying Dvorak’s Largo (Going Home) and Phillip Phillips’s Home. It is said that “great artists steal”, but these were no mere copycats but intelligent re-creations of the friendly and familiar.

Nelson performed on three cellos: a classic named Boris, a carbon-fibre model that doubled as percussion instrument, and a skeletal electric called Bruce Lee which had the nifty ability to record and overdub. This enabled multiple layers of cello playing to be heard simultaneously, essential a virtual cello orchestra.

He was heard solo in Beethoven’s 5 Secrets, a play on themes from old Ludwig’s Fifth Symphony, partly accompanied by violinists from the United World College. Pianist Schmidt also had his own solo, an original composition Waterfall, with constant crossing of hands which resembled an updated Scarlatti sonata. That was “how ugly piano playing guys won the chicks,” he jested.

Pachelbel’s Canon, the “most boring work for cellists” (as they play the same eight bars ad infinitum) was transformed to a Rock-abel Canon complete with blazing Latin beat. There was also a video Cello Wars, where two Stevens duelled with bows-turned-light sabres to music from John Williams’s music of Star Wars. The gags and geeky in-jokes flowed unabated, and the audience got a glimpse of mash-ups that will end on the cutting-room floor, including one bringing together Orphan Annie’s song and Darth Vader’s Imperial March.

Two and a half hours passed all too quickly, and two encores - Bring Him Home from Les Miserables and Elvis’s Can’t Help Falling In Love - brought about a standing ovation. If you did not smile, laugh, cry, clap in rhythm or throw up your hands in pure pleasure, thy name is Ebenezer Scrooge.   

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