Portland Cello Project: These are the voyages

The celestial strains of Alexander Courage’s famous theme from the original Star Trek series opened the second half of the Portland Cello Project’s concert Thursday night at Portland’s Old Church. It was an appropriate choice for a group that has taken its namesake instrument where no cello has gone before.

Now one of the city’s most popular musical exports, PCP has embarked on several successful national tours, appeared on National Public Radio, and has engaged pop and rock audiences like no other quasi-classical ensemble in memory since the Kronos Quartet. This concert showed why.

The show was a benefit for one of the city’s most invaluable music venues, The Old Church, which is raising funds for a air conditioner — a much -needed item, as anyone who sweltered through PCP’s 100-plus degree CD release concert there last summer will attest. The group has also recorded in the space, and deserve kudos for hosting this benefit to an institution that benefits the entire city’s music scene, in particular chamber and new music concerts by the likes of FearNoMusic and Third Angle.

PCP leader Douglas Jenkins, who took up the instrument as a college freshman (!) at the University of Oregon, has cherished classical music since his days of attending free rehearsals of the Honolulu Symphony as a kid, but he also played in punk bands as a teenager there. He led one of Portland’s most original bands, the improv-based, cello-guitar driven quartet Bright Red Paper, before starting the Cello Project, which he’s made into one of the unlikeliest success stories in pop music. They’re now rock stars — every music nerd’s dream come true.

Unlike PCP’s raucous, all-night dance parties at sold out rock clubs, which feature the cream of Portland indie rock scene singing their own hits and pop covers with PCP accompanying, this Old Church gig was a relatively conventional venue for an ensemble of “classical” instruments. But it did have one thing in common with the club gigs: this one, too, sold out.

The show opened with a lively classical piece, Manuel de Falla’s familiar “Ritual Fire Dance” from his 1915 ballet, Love the Magician, then delivered an original composition by PCP’s Gideon Freudmann (who was out of town and couldn’t make this gig). An arrangement of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s famous “Caravan,” followed, and a famous chorus from Georges Bizet’s opera, Carmen, complete with audience participation. Then came several pieces by contemporary composers — including perhaps the hottest composer in the world today, Argentine-American Osvaldo Golijov and his plaintive “Lúa Descolorida,” (which I’ve also heard performed by his favorite singer, Dawn Upshaw, who premiered it; this version does the original justice).  Next came what Jenkins described as “a strict canon on a theme by [hip hop star] L’il Wayne, one of the most offensive songs in the history of man, ‘Lollipop’.” The set closed with Freudmann’s tuneful dirge, “Denmark,” inspired by a personal tragedy.

As a further preview of their forthcoming classical/ hip hop CD, PCP unleashed a Kanye West song, plus another jazz classic and another classic TV theme, Paul Desmond’s Brubeck Quartet hit “Take Five,” yoked to Lalo Schifrin’s driving Mission Impossible theme, and an unreleased song by the late, great Portland songwriter Elliott Smith, “Taking a Fall,” both from their darkly beautiful 2010 album A Thousand Words. And they revived one of their early signature covers, a dandy take on Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” before concluding with a Pantera cover that might have been the most inventive arrangement of the evening, and another Kanye West number.

This concert demonstrated that Portland Cello Project is much more than a gimmick. The cello, whose range approximates that of the human voice, can propel a band with plucked bass notes and also give wings to soaring melodies. Jenkins’ increasingly adept arrangements (now numbering nearly 700) for the ensemble provide musical depth while staying faithful to the pop hooks and tunes. The band’s hip hop covers bring out a pathos and musicality often obscured by massive beats and cliched, in-your-face lyrics. The group’s rhythmic prowess keeps heads nodding (in a good way) and feet tapping.

So to sum up, we have a youngish (mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings, I’d guess) sextet playing classical music, jazz, original compositions, hip hop , rock and pop music. On cellos. In a church. And it’s sold out. Classical music world — are you paying attention?

Admittedly the level of performance isn’t quite as stratospheric as at your typical classical recital, but the degree of musical expression and audience engagement certainly is — and so is the sense of spontaneity and delight. No one there thinks they’re entering a musty museum — they’re going because they know they’ll hear some vital music, regardless of genre or era, made by musicians who clearly love that music and work hard to get it across to the audience. There’s a lesson there for musical institutions everywhere, and not just classical ones. Something to do with boldly going where no one has gone before.

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