Portland Cello Project raises a ruckus, not a racket

  • By Chrissie Dickinson Chicago Tribune
  • Wednesday, December 2, 2015 2:40pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Whether covering Kanye West, Beck or Duke Ellington, the Portland Cello Project makes an indisputable point. The collective’s instrument of choice packs plenty of emotional punch regardless of genre.

“We’ve found that everything sounds good on a cello,” says Diane Chaplin, a member of the Portland, Oregon-based group (who also serves as the ensemble’s director of educational outreach).

Formed in 2007, the Project has perfected an appealing and winning formula. The rotating cast of cellists applies its classically trained chops to a wide-ranging repertoire that includes instrumental versions of jazz standards, dance pop hits, hip-hop and heavy metal. The collective has toured far and wide, performing in venues ranging from punk dives to orchestra halls. A number of former members are successful solo artists as well, including composer and performer Zoe Keating and singer-songwriter Ashia Grzesik.

The group’s albums include 2014’s self-released “to e.s.” The 12-track album is an homage to late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. A melancholy cult figure who suffered from depression and substance abuse, Smith died of two stab wounds to the chest in 2003 at the age of 34. Although many believe his controversial death was a suicide, the coroner’s report was inconclusive. Smith left behind a significant body of work, including the Academy Award-nominated song “Miss Misery.”

PCP’s Chaplin called recently from the road to discuss all things cello. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q: The Portland Cello Project covered Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” It seems that playing a cello version of a big pop hit like that allows the listener to leave behind whatever baggage they have about the song and really hear the bones of it.

A: That’s really right on. I don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop and heavy metal, but it sounds fantastic on cello. One of the things that we think has happened with the Portland Cello Project is that people who might not think they like certain kinds of music hear us and say, “Wow, I’ve heard some classical music and it was great” or “I heard some hip-hop and really loved it.” We hope that we embody the music with our own emotions and our own special presentation.

Q: What was the audience reaction when PCP covered the metal band Pantera?

A: The Pantera show was a surprise. We performed the band’s album “Vulgar Display of Power” for the 20th anniversary of that release. Coming into that project I didn’t even know who Pantera was. The band was just not on my radar. But it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life. We were playing really hard because you have to play loud and hard for an entire evening of heavy metal. The crowd of 500 people were screaming the whole time. The audience knew all the words. We were not expecting that. It was hilarious for us. We still talk about this.

Q: The cello is very popular. So many people are attracted to its sound. What is at the heart of its appeal?

A: It’s been said that of all the instruments, the cello is the one most closely like the human voice. The lowest notes that the cello can play are really the lowest notes that a bass-baritone voice can sing. The cello can go higher than people can sing, but in the highest notes it goes to the top of the soprano range. It’s an instrument that can cover any of that vocal range. The cello also has a fullness, a breathiness to it. I think that’s why people have that very emotional reaction to it – it sounds like a voice.

Q: What drew you to the cello?

A: It’s a way to express emotions. There’s an emotional release. That goes for any musical instrument and definitely for the cello. When you play, it’s speaking to people. Also, the cello is the size of a human body. You hold it. You put your arms around it. It’s this thing you take with you everywhere you go. It’s like having another person with you all the time.

Q: Part of your mission includes educational outreach. What are some of the ways you do that?

A: We do a lot of school concerts and educational residencies. That’s definitely exciting because one of our missions as musicians is to reach out to younger generations to create audiences for the future, to get people of all ages excited about music.

Q: PCP’s current release is a tribute to Elliott Smith. What has been the response to the material?

A: Very positive. Very emotional. Sympathetic. We feel really good about honoring him and keeping his music alive. His songs immediately fit the voice of the cello. They have been universally popular everywhere we’ve been and have been some of the most rewarding songs to play on an emotional level. We also have some personal connections to Elliott and his legacy. (The album co-producer) Larry Crane is the curator of Elliott’s material. Early on after Elliott’s death, (PCP’s artistic director emeritus) Doug Jenkins was able to gain access to some of Elliott’s unreleased recordings and he chose one for us to cover.

Q: How many members will be performing on stage for this current tour?

A: We will have five cellos.

Q: I’ve heard there are special challenges in transporting cellos. How do you tour with your instruments?

A: We almost always rent vans. Last week when we went down to the Bay Area, we actually had two people drive the cellos down in a van and the rest of us flew back and forth. It’s really prohibitively expensive to fly cellos and most of us don’t want to put our cellos in the baggage compartment area of an airplane. It gets crazy if you try to fly with cellos. Every once in a while we’ll do it. But for this long tour, we’ll definitely be in a van the whole time. We try to schedule ourselves so we’ll start out on the West Coast and perform our way across the country.

If you go

The Portland Cello Project will perform Dec. 6 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased at www.seattlesymphony.org.

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