By Cristina Schreil
As if we needed remembering, Yo-Yo Ma—amid pursuing a titanic Bach project—released a quick reminder of his versatility. Along with the “Allemande” from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2, Ma dropped a cover of Ed Sheeran’s mega-hit “Shape of You” as a Spotify Singles recording. It’s hardly the first time a classical artist has shaken hands with pop. But the work, arranged by Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble collaborators Mike Block and Shane Shanahan, exemplifies how—best-case scenario—covers are much more than mimicry or even homage.
Sinking into the tribute’s buoyant, ultra-lush vibes, we’re reminded of the earworm power of when great classical players tackle popular hits. It’s also a rare thing. While all covers start from a place of admiration, a lackluster cover can feel uninspired. It slumps into hollow parroting, like when that robotic fish mounted on your uncle’s wall bursts into “Take Me to the River.” But, when done right, a cover transcends the original tune. Strings in particular are ideal vehicles for such projects. Ma’s fruity layers, spot-on capture of Sheeran’s lyricism, and head-bopping dancehall-beat syncopation channels the original, but refreshes our palates. Add some percussion and pizzicato and you’ve got a winsome alchemical union.
Ma also resurrects the moving rawness that many of us forgot the song has. “Shape of You” was an undisputable sensation—namely since Sheeran performed it, toggling between instruments and looping pedals like a cephalopodic magician, at the 59th Grammy Awards. But, as pop hits usually do, it became overplayed. We became numb. It colonized radio stations, shopping mall sound systems, and even wedding first dances. With Ma’s signature burnished tone, we have a work that reignites a love we thought died hard by the eight-thousandth listen. It’s a piece that resonates as both tribute and Yo-Yo Ma performance.
In the spirit of this new gold standard for string covers, we’ve rounded up our favorite string arrangements of popular songs (in no particular order). They’re ones that, like Ma’s, elevate the original and reinvigorate eardrums.
1. From the Top and Time for Three: Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off”
If this video doesn’t spark joy for you, I’m reporting you to the police. Performing this charming and intricate arrangement, young performers from From the Top join forces with Nicolas Kendal, Nikki Chooi and Ranaan Meyer of Time for Three (also an ensemble with a muscular clutch of vitalizing covers in their repertoire). It takes Swift’s peppy 2014 pop hit and injects it with the spunky energy of a street dance off-meets fiddle jam session.
The real stars here are the preteen trio who rightly nabs the spotlight from Time for Three at the start of the video: violinists Charlotte Marckx and Kevin Miura and cellist Dylan Wu. The variations on Swift’s theme are dazzling, from an interlude that builds off a sassy conversation between Meyer and Wu to an exuberant climax of bounding virtuosic runs. It’s an addicting performance of delightful twists and turns.
Sorry, Taylor, this is better than the original by far. (Please don’t @ me Swifties, I have a family).
2. 2Cellos: Louis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito”
Like “Shape of You,” the global-hit explosion that was “Despacito” was impossible to escape. While it was difficult to choose just one 2Cellos cover, this arrangement wins for its ability to make you recall why you first sunk into love with the original. The Croatian duo of Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser conjure big romance vibes even by the opening measures, which deftly weave supple bowed lines with delicate pizzicato.
The pre-chorus almost begs one to dance, the dusky melodic line sailing over choppy jabs. (Listen for a delightful glissando pizzicato right before the chorus). This version is springy yet poignant. The articulation, precise. Hauser once argued that the cello is “the closest instrument to the human voice,” and here, with a tone that is somehow at once gritty and honeyed, this especially hits home.
Throughout, arresting control over vibrato, dynamics, and splashes of ornamentation add new spice to the original tune. (In a breakneck MTV performance on YouTube filmed from London’s Royal Albert Hall, some deft ricochets add extra fireworks.) It’s somehow sexier than the original.
3. Vitamin String Quartet: Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”
Los Angeles–based Vitamin String Quartet, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has made covers their bread and butter, tackling entire albums and retrospectives of any year’s top hits at an impressive rate. Their repertoire is fathoms deep and their metabolism has no signs of slowing; likely, you will have a favorite VSQ cover choice other than this.
But, their take on Daft Punk, Pharrell and Nile Rogers’ bright and bubbly disco hit—part of their survey of the Grammy-winning Random Access Memories—is nimble and on target. Thanks to the cello’s driving pizzicato bassline from the start, one can’t help but head bop to the beat. There’s also fine contrasts at play: While the higher strings’ blend is particularly plush in delivering that addictive hook “We’ve come too far to give up who we are,” the ensuing chorus is driving and textured. While Pharrell’s voice rings as glossy and elegant in the original, the VSQ commands this version with an intriguing degree of grit: bold staccato stabs and articulation so crisp it might set off smoke alarms.
4. Kate Simko and London Electronic Orchestra: The xx’s “Intro”
More indie artists are embracing real strings in their sound, so it’s no surprise when string players draw inspiration from this realm. Innovative composer Kate Simko’s version of English indie rock band The xx’s “Intro,” the seductive opening track to their 2009 album, has an unexpected beginning. After an undulating harp cascade, Simko paints a landscape of bucolic hues, helped along by sprightly high strings and a sweeping melodic line. There’s a cinematic build. It hardly sounds like the original.
But suddenly, we transition; the all-female orchestra plunges into that familiar Jamie xx opening—but cranks up the dial on its allure. This version grabs the song’s effortless sultriness and leans into it, showcasing strings at their most sumptuous and textured. And, it evinces how well strings work with electronics. Like any good song, cover or not, it’s easy to get lost in it.
5. Lindsey Stirling: Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”
People spend so much time trying to classify Lindsey Stirling, who toggles between rock and fiddling vibes, all while dancing and emulating wood sprites, that they forget to appreciate that her breed of creative fusion is at the heart of contemporary classical. For today’s artists, love of music transcends genre. With this Green Day cover, we get a glimpse into that truth. Stirling often moves while playing, but here, in this video, she is fixed on a stool, save for some happy sways. She strips it back, focusing on the purity of her violin as it channels this beloved chart-topper.
From her opening agile pizzicato section to playful ornamentation to a silky, echo-touched tone as she leaps into the anthem’s emotional heart, it’s a spiriting rendition (and that’s not just because of a very enthused-looking cajón player cavorting in the background.) In true Stirling fashion, she touches everything with some positivity. It’s an interesting treatment for this minor-key favorite song of almost every high schooler who dyed their hair black in the 2000s, but I digress. It’s straightforward and warm, a welcome cover.
Obviously, I’ve left out a lot—dozens, nay hundreds. What did we miss? Let us know below.