In 2006, 10 cellists arranged themselves on the Doug Fir Lounge stage to try playing classical music in an equalizing, booze-positive setting. Assisted by the group's infectious cover of Britney Spears' "Toxic," what was meant as a one-off experiment morphed into the Portland Cello Project.
A decade later, they’ve become one of the city’s most revered musical institutions.
“People just like the sound of the cello,” says Nancy Ives, principal cellist of the Oregon Symphony and a featured guest player with the PCP.
Since its inception, the PCP’s rotating all-star cast of local players has taken on the repertoires of everyone from Elliott Smith to postmodern classical composers like Arvo Pärt, splitting program space with original compositions from PCP’s own members. In fact, the instrument itself is about the only common thread running through the PCP’s synthesis. But that diversity is central to its mission—to connect seemingly disparate musical communities and open doors revealing new, inclusive ways to hear and appreciate music.
Unlike many of the classical establishment’s attempts at “accessibility” in the ’80s and ’90s, the Portland Cello Project’s aim isn’t to make so-called “normal people” buy more symphony tickets. Early attempts to dissolve once-stark divisions between “academic, cerebral” music and pop were “not successful artistically,” Ives says. “The word ‘pandering’ comes to mind.”
It may have an arrangement of Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” for six cellos, but by playing just as many bluegrass, jazz and contemporary classical pieces as it does pop covers, the PCP has intentionally avoided being boxed in as “classical crossover.” Rather, the project builds channels of creative conversation not limited by instrumentation. This, in itself, isn’t new.
“If you’re playing a Bach cantata on all cellos, it won’t sound exactly the same,” Ives says. “It’s a reflection on that musical material, just the way it is when you play a rock song on however many cellos.”
Gideon Freudmann, a founding PCP member and composer, points out that improvisation was once an essential element of classical style. The original versions of classical masterworks were written without much detail spelling out tempo and dynamics, and musicians made those decisions themselves, allowing much greater personal expression than we usually hear in classical music today.
"There's a tendency for people to forget that classical music wasn't something that always existed as a great tradition from the past," he says.
Those of us who picture classical traditionalists as buttoned-up, play-what’s-on-the-page types might assume they’d find PCP’s pop efforts a disgrace. But Freudmann argues that “classical music has, by some purists, gotten a little too locked into ‘this is just the way it should be.’ I firmly believe that’s not how music ever was.”
Not that Freudmann is without playful opposition. The PCP’s upcoming 10th anniversary concert will feature a faceoff between his electric cello-driven Innovation ensemble and classical cello heavyweight and PCP member Diane Chaplin’s Virtuosi ensemble. Even Chaplin says the strictures of classical playing can be seen as “restrictive” or “formative,” adding that she loves “rising to the expectations of an excellent classical performance” just as much as she loves the increased freedom of expression she finds in the Portland Cello Project.
In a world where famed composer Sergei Prokofiev’s grandson Gabriel is just as prolific in the classical sphere as he is in London’s club scene, the PCP is in the middle of a larger trend of cross-pollination. The project doesn’t seek to make classical inroads on popular genres but to reinvigorate this one classical instrument with a spirit integral to the Western musical tradition: the spirit of exchange, of progress, of using music as a mirror to reflect on the world as it changes.
“Good music is good music, and there’s always a place for it,” Freudmann says. “It’s not going to go away. What matters is how it’s presented.” ISABEL ZACHARIAS.
SEE IT: The Portland Cello Project’s 10th anniversary show is at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, on Friday, Nov. 25. 8 pm. $28-$45. All ages.