Taylor Swift’s music is made for obsessing over. Fans have long pored over seemingly insignificant details in her lyrics like a scarf or a cardigan, speculated what song is about which of her long list of famous ex-lovers, and interpreted her work with a zeal more akin to that of biblical scholars or Stanley Kubrick fans than a pop star’s fan army.
So what’s left when you take the lyrics away? A lot, as it turns out. On Jan. 13, Candlelight Concerts will bring the Listeso String Quartet to the Alberta Rose Theatre for two concerts featuring performances of Taylor Swift favorites played with two violins, a viola, and a cello (more performances will take place Feb. 16 and March 19).
“The advantage to performing these concerts for the legions of Swifties out there is that they already know Taylor’s lyrics, so they’ll be rattling around in their heads during the performance,” says Candlelight curator Ricky Schweitzer.
Candlelight Concerts is the brainchild of a New York entertainment company called Fever. Each show is illuminated by thousands of battery-powered “candles,” creating an eerie atmosphere in whichever venue the concert takes place. It’s ideal for experiencing the work of an artist whose music makes a fetish of over-the-top romantic overtures (it’s surprising Swift doesn’t have a song called “Candlelight” already).
The concert series started in 2019 with mostly classical performances, but it soon expanded to include tributes to popular artists like ABBA, the Beatles, Beyoncé and Queen, selected through “research that takes into account global metrics and feedback from current patrons, prospective patrons, and our musicians,” Schweitzer says.
Taylor Swift poses a particularly unique challenge in an instrumental setting because of how central her words are to her music. Yet Swift wouldn’t have sat so consistently atop the charts for the past 15 years if not for her skill with hooks and melodies, which is what this adaptation of her music hopes to emphasize about her body of work.
“Everyone knows that Taylor’s songs are catchy, of course,” Schweitzer says. “But by looking into every note, every phrase, the arrangers and musicians are able to internalize her music and interpret it in such a way that makes it their own.”
Though the arrangements take a “utilitarian approach” that allows all four instruments to shine, the first violin is usually responsible for interpreting Taylor’s vocal hooks and staying true to her ear for hiccuping, singsong melodies without simply imitating them.
“The challenge lies in finding ways to translate those specific moments not just note by note to strings, but also in such a way as to accentuate the power of the string instruments themselves,” Schweitzer says.
Candlelight Concerts doesn’t have its own in-house string quartet, so it outsources to local ensembles in the cities where the concerts take place. A Cincinnati performance of the Taylor Swift tribute last month employed the local StringSource quartet, and the Alberta Rose show will feature the Portland branch of the Listeso Music Group, a management agency with quartets in dozens of American cities.
This isn’t the only show Candlelight Concerts is putting on in the next couple months at the Alberta Rose. On Jan. 12 and 22, and Feb. 5, it’ll also host performances of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and Jan. 25 will see two performances of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.
Meanwhile, in Miller Hall at the World Forestry Center, tributes to Adele and Queen are lined up, plus a “From Bach to the Beatles” program that highlights the unprecedented ways in which the Fab Four took inspiration from Western art music.
Swift’s own recordings tend to be a little less baroque than that of the Beatles and Queen, generally adhering to standard pop and country structures and arrangements, but Fever is ready for the challenge of making her songs feel fresh and interesting in this unusual context.
“Just as the human voice and a guitar have quirks and limitations that give them their inherent specialness,” Schweitzer says, “so does a string quartet.”
SEE IT: Candlelight: A Tribute to Taylor Swift plays at Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St., 503-719-6055, albertarosetheatre.com. 6 and 8:30 pm Friday, Jan. 13. $50-$60. Ages 8+, anyone under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.