A Little Heavy Metal Here, A Little Pop There: A Decade Of The Portland Cello Project

By Suzi Steffen

In the 10+ years that the Portland Cello Project has been popping up to thrill fans of the cello and garner a lot of new fans, various permutations of players have appeared in the ranks of performers.

The group basically enjoys making the cello an instrument not only of the yearning you might remember from Hilary and Jackie, but of transmogrified pop, hip hop, heavy metal and more.

Me, I knew about them before 2011, but I fell hardest for them while watching a YouTube video of the PCP version of Kanye West’s “All of the Lights.”

Now, as the PCP tours for a celebration of its first decade, the group has split into various versions of itself, or “crews,” PCP’s educational outreach coordinator told me.

Diane Chaplin, the educational outreach coordinator who’s been with the group for about half of its life (she also spent years touring as part of the Colorado Quartet; here’s her  website for more info), explained the different crews – and the ways that having them allows the Portland Cello Project to tour in a much wider number of places. One is the “innovators,” and that crew is heading up to Alaska later in the year even as Chaplin’s group, the “virtuosi,” are touring Arizona and Florida. That virtuosi crew is also headed to the Hi-Fi Music Hall in Eugene for an 8 pm show this Friday, Nov. 4th.

Chaplin says that she enjoys Eugene – “It’s like Portland’s sister city!” she says. (I take a breath and say, “Like … little sister city?” She agrees.)

“My crew is the heavy hitters of the cello,” Chaplin said. “We can play a variety of different styles, and we’ll be doing a lot of ‘classical’ music in a super fun, super exciting concert.

Portland Cello Project, photo by Jason Quigley

Chaplin said that one reason the Portland Cello Project has such a devoted following is that they play classical juxtaposed with a variety of other music. “We play things that people might not know but will enjoy,” she said. “Our goal with the virtuosi is to be brilliant and colorful.”

The cello is an instrument beloved by some music fans because its range is roughly similar to that of a human voice, and something about its size and the warmth of its timbre also seems to please humans – something Chaplin has discussed in many interviews, though not ours. What we did discuss was whether cellists currently in conservatory are training for symphonies or chamber music – and whether the PCP is chamber music or not. Here’s a short Q&A with her from the weekend before the Friday performance.

How do you decide which songs to cover and which songs to play at a performance?

We have an artistic director,and in the past, he’s been the one who has made those decisions for the most part. One of the things about having these different crews – we actually have three; one called All That Jazz toured for the month of September – is that the people who are in charge of the different crews are making all of the programming decisions. That’s fun! Also, with the ten-year anniversary, and the refresh, renew, revitalize theme, other people are putting their hands in.

What do you think people just going through a conservatory are thinking right now about the cello and performance? I mean, there aren’t that many spots in symphonies.

The Portland Cello Project, photo by Jason Quigley

I think modern day musicians have developed a far-reaching idea of what the options are. For quite a while now, it’s been that even when you’re a young musician, you play other things. You don’t always just play in an orchestra; you play for your friend’s video when they want a cello sound, and you make something up, for instance. Many, many pop songs have string backgrounds – the general public does not realize how much cellos, and strings in general, are in TV shows and movies. And all of that music, people are playing it. We expect to work wherever we can.

Yes, some people are on a symphonic path. I, as well as most of the PCP, have never been interested in that. I’ve always wanted to do small ensembles and chamber music. But the definition of chamber music is music played in a small room, so we are chamber music.

For me, I’m the highest level of conservatory-trained cellist; I have a master’s from Juilliard, but I’m completely not interested in orchestral playing. And I did my quartet playing for 20 years. Now, I love the option of playing things that aren’t exactly “chamber music” – and we are not [wedded] to “we have to follow historical practice and play something this way.” There’s this sort of legacy, if you will, of how we play music, and PCP doesn’t have to do that.

What’s it like to be the educational outreach coordinator for the Portland Cello Project? What do you do in that role?

We do a variety of different things, usually when we’re on tour but sometimes in Portland as well. We do collaborations with schools; we sometimes have kids play with us. We do lots and lots of school performances. In 2015, we had a residency in Iowa, and we played for 10,000 students during 33 performances in two weeks. We’re building audiences for the future – especially at a time when so many schools have bands and not orchestras, so no strings. We do it to bring joy into people’s lives.

I think the Portland Cello Project played an outdoor concert for the Oregon Bach Festival several years ago. What’s it like playing festivals like that?

We’ve discovered that a lot of festivals have fringe concerts, and those are good for us. For instance, we’re playing for Grand Tetons in winter concerts, and we played at the Britt Festival. The very first thing I played with the Portland Cello Project was a Fourth of July concert.

Tell me about those outdoor shows.

We’ve had the outdoor shows that happened on a day where it was really cold with rain, with more people on the stage than sitting on wet field trying to listen to us. But we’re taking it as it comes. And we’re really excited with what we’re doing right now!

The Portland Cello Project
7 pm doors, 8 pm concert, Friday, Nov. 4
Hi-Fi Music Hall, 44 E. 7th Ave.
Tickets $15-25

Suzi Steffen

Suzi has been writing about the arts in Eugene, Ashland and Portland for about 10 years. She loves riding her Torker Trike, Momo; going to performances; reading and writing books; gardening; and watching as many films as possible in between everything else. Email her at suzi at theeugenereview dot com.

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