An Evening with The Piano Guys

by Patricia Vanikiotis

Aug 24, 2019

Earlier this year, as my husband and I were perusing the line-up of artists scheduled to perform at our favorite outdoor concert venue here in Southern Oregon, we couldn’t quite agree on who we wanted to see. Those I wanted to see Harry wasn’t particularly excited about, and I wasn’t that interested in a few that he liked. There were also a few that we would have liked to watch, but they coincided with times we would be out of town. I don’t quite recall how we finally settled on The Piano Guys. Neither of us had heard of them before, but we must have decided that an evening of instrumental music, classical mixed with other genres, would be pleasant.

The Britt Festival in quaint, gold rush-era Jacksonville provides a wonderfully relaxed and intimate setting for music. It started decades ago as a purely classical music festival spanning a few weeks each summer. Now, in addition to still hosting those classical performances, the Britt features concerts from every musical genre from June ’til September “on the hill” in a natural grassy amphitheater that holds just a few thousand audience members.

We parked our car several blocks from the venue (there isn’t much parking close by) and hopped the free town trolley that circles through downtown Jacksonville and then deposits patrons right outside the festival grounds. As we usually do, we brought our own picnic supper (though there are a few vendors and/or food trucks on site) as well as a couple of bottles of wine. At most concerts patrons can bring in their own beer or wine (no hard liquor), making for a very convivial atmosphere as folks wine and dine before the music starts. In years past we’ve gotten the general admission lawn seats, requiring getting there hours early for a really good spot to spread out your blanket, but we’ve decided we’re old fogeys now and are happy to spring a little more for reserved seats on the stadium benches up front.

Imagine my confusion when I turned to check out the stage after reaching my seat: There was only one piano on stage, and next to it sat three cellos, each with a very distinctive look. Britt Festival    Wait, “Piano Guys” seems to indicate more than one piano, and it certainly didn’t mention cellos or any other instrument. Okay, time to check out the program. Yes, we would be entertained by Jon Schmidt on piano and Steven Nelson on cello, two gentlemen who had been playing together for years. They’ve had six No. 1 debuts on Billboard’s Top Classical Albums charts, over 1.6 billion YouTube views and average nearly 2 million monthly listeners on Spotify. Clearly, I’d been living under a rock for some time.

The seats and the lawn filled up quickly (especially for a Tuesday night), so it seemed a lot of people knew about these guys. Britt Festival  Britt Festival

Finally, the performers took the stage as beautiful scenes of the northern lights and other landscapes played on the large screens behind them. The Piano Guys provided an explanation of their name and their history between songs, during which we learned that the videographer (Paul Anderson) and their producer (Al van der Beek) are also “Piano Guys,” and the four proudly embrace their self-proclaimed St. George, Utah, Mormon-dad geekiness. The onstage members of the foursome performed classical tunes mashed up with everyone from Gershwin to Coldplay as well as original music in both solo and duet performances. Cellist Nelson provided most of the onstage patter, proving to be a self-deprecating and amusing narrator.

One of their ongoing projects is to endeavor to perform at all Seven Wonders of the World, and we were treated to video of them atop the Great Wall of China (don’t ask me how they got a grand piano up there) while they played live before us. The videos throughout the evening were truly stunning, and I’m sure they prompted many in the audience to decide right then and there to travel to the gorgeous landscapes they depicted. We saw the performers at the base of Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, followed by the majesty of the Iguazú Falls on the border between Brazil and Argentina. Next they were in the Scottish Highlands playing before an ancient castle in the middle of a loch, accompanied by a Scottish pipe and drum corps. Another scene showed them playing atop some of those stunning red-rock cliffs in southern Utah accompanied by guest artist Alex Boye. Britt Festival

We truly enjoyed our evening with The Piano Guys, made all the better on a beautiful warm night with a nearly full moon rising at the Britt.  The Britt Festival

— Patty Vanikiotis, associate editor/copy editor




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