If you went to the 2CELLOS concert at Austin’s Frank Erwin Center Thursday expecting a night of straightforward classical music, you were sadly disappointed. However, if you went to have your mind blown by incredible virtuosity and a fresh take on some popular hits, you were a very happy camper.
As the house lights dimmed and the stage took on a deep red aura, a string ensemble made up of local musicians – including 6 violinists, 2 violists, 2 cellists, a double bass player, and a keyboardist – took the stage and sat in still silence. You could feel the anticipation building as the crowd waited for the two guys who are 2CELLOS to appear. Eventually, the Croation duo entered from stage left to rousing applause.
Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic unassumingly took the stage dressed in jeans and button-down shirts and eased into their first number, the theme to “Chariots of Fire,” sounding exactly as one would expect from a traditional string performance.
The pair has achieved amazing success by taking their instruments to new heights. They tear down the walls between the traditional and the contemporary and are equally impressive playing classical, pop or heavy metal. Sulic and Hauser are both prize-winning cellists and have studied and played with the best.
The first clue that tonight would not be a reverential night of classical music came as soon as Luka addressed the audience. After the obligatory “Good Evening Austin,” he explained “First I want to say that this is not a classical concert … you can do anything you want in our show…you can scream … You can dance and break dance on stage…anything you want.” If you didn’t know what was coming, this invitation seemed odd. And it became more confusing when Hauser took the mic.
“Good Evening” he purred, sounding more like a creepy Transylvanian uncle with a bad case of vocal fry than a world-class musician. “We are gonna keep you warm tonight.. with my hotness!” Although the audience laughed, and some ladies screamed their approval, it was a bit discomforting.
But Hauser has his wisecracking stage banter down. Throughout the evening he flirted with the audience, with a twinkle in his eye and an all-knowing smile on his face. It’s difficult to tell if it’s the language difference or brilliant comedic timing that eventually endears him to those not already in the know. It doesn’t take long for the entire audience to be in on the joke and realize that his cheesy sex-symbol references are self-effacing and not serious. Or are they?
The first nine songs of the evening came from their latest album, 2017’s “Score,” a collection of movie scores that Hauser explained: “sounds much better on the cello than on the original.” And these songs were all played pretty straightforward. Strong. Powerful. Orchestral. Full of dynamics and presented with modest grace. If not for the cheesy banter, this would be a typical night at the symphony.
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After an elegant version of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” they were joined on-stage by their touring drummer, Dušan Kranjc. Kranjc is an excellent percussionist and brought to the stage another clue that things would soon veer further away from the traditional. They played the theme from “Rain Man” before thrilling the crowd with a simply beautiful version of “My Heart Will Go On,” the song made famous by Celine Dion from a little movie called “Titanic.”
At the conclusion of “Where Do I Begin?” the theme from ”Love Story” You could sense the audience’s restlessness. Hauser chimed in, eyes twinkling with mischievousness. “Only one more slow song, guys! Finally! Lets somehow go through this one more. Be patient of it.” He introduced Hans Zimmer’s powerful theme to “Gladiator,” “Now We Are Free” exclaiming ”This one is my favorite from the new album. I get chills every time I hear myself playing it!”
The piece drew to a quiet close, with a pause of deafening silence as the last harmonic notes faded softly before the applause began. That silence was short-lived, however, as the drums kicked in, echoed by syncopated spotlights shining down on Kranjc’s drumkit. The cellos played much more rhythmically, the music alternating between classical and something much harder. As they began playing a medley of themes from “Game of Thrones” squeals of recognition came from the audience. The majestic strings combined with a rock beat served as the perfect transition for the 360° turnaround that was about to take place.
It began with Hauser becoming extremely animated, playing the opening melody to the song that brought these two YouTube fame and worldwide attention back in 2011. The audience roared its approval as Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” signaled the start of the second half of the evening.
It was just the two of them, alternating between playing the melody and the percussive rhythm. They weaved a sonic tapestry, at times harmonizing and at others playing brilliant counterpoint as the audience clapped along. The song seemed to speed up as it progressed, ultimately climaxing into a cacophony of screeches and howls before its abrupt ending.
As the audience roared in appreciation, the two quickly launched into another song that brought them YouTube acclaim, AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” Hauser stood up, bouncing his bow off of the strings of his cello to emphasize the song’s anthemic beats. By the end of the song, Hauser fell to the floor and started running in circles a la Angus Young, cello in hand. He finished the tune lying on his back and embracing his cello in a way that only lovers do.
The audience rose to feet as they were treated to a drum solo designed to allow the string ensemble to leave the stage and signal the end of musical civility.
“Austin are you ready to rock?” Sulic asked. “Ok, I’d like to see your hands up. Come on!” he exclaimed as the metallic riffs of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” emanated from Hauser’s cello. Hauser entered full rock-star mode, standing up for the choruses, flailing his bow, and rhythmically jutting his hips forward.
As the second of four AC/DC songs started, Sulic removed any remaining air of classical stuffiness that may have remained in the Frank Erwin Center by demanding that the audience get on its feet, leave their seats, and come down front, turning the seated area into a mass of people.
Hauser was now up and strutting around stage Angus-style, brandishing his carbon-fiber cello as a weapon. At one point he fell to his knees playing lead cello as the audience pumped their fist and flashed the heavy metal devil horns (or were they UT Hook’em Horns?).
“You Shook Me All Night Long” led into “Highway to Hell” and Hauser continued the AC/DC tribute illuminated in red light and wearing glowing devil horns on his head. By the song’s end, he sounded like the devil himself playing the screeching melody lines while duck-walking across the stage.
They brought the audience into the mix with the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” turning it into a call and response exercise. Hauser would yell “I can’t get no…” prompting the willing crowd to answer with a loud “SATISFACTION!” Ultimately this devolved into Hauser using silly voices, which only added to the fun.
“You want more?” asks Luka. “OK.” They finished the set with their final AC/DC number before taking a bow and darting off stage.
As they started their encore, Hauser played a scale on his cello to the audience’ amusement before launching into a raucous version of “The William Tell Overture” that morphed into the Iron Maiden classic “The Trooper.”
As they approached the front of the stage for another bow, the took the obligatory selfie with the crowd behind them. But the guys were far from finished. The duo showed their rock chops but needed to prove they can play pop as well. Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” was followed by a version of the summer’s ubiquitous hit “Despacito.” Yes, they can play pop!
For the final tune, Hauser prompted the audience to be quiet with a loud “Shhhhhhh” before reprising his creepy uncle voice. “Thank you for staying ‘til the end.. It never happened for us. First time!”
They closed the night with a simply stunning and inspired version of U2’s “With or Without You.” It was just the two of them. The drummer remained behind his kit only to prompt the audience into holding their cell phones high, creating a luminous environment that magically enhanced the experience.
It was a perfect ending to a night filled with joyful celebration.