Portland’s burgeoning independent music scene has done it again. In just a couple of years, the Portland Cello Project, a quirky collective of cellists, has built an eclectic repertoire that extends from Brittany Spears covers to Johann Sebastian Bach arrangements. PCP plays mostly at rock clubs, coffee houses, and other venues not associated with cellos. By performing and recording with groups like Weinland, The Builders and The Butchers, and Horse Feathers, PCP has created a enthusiastic, under-40s fan base that most classical music ensembles would covet.
PCP was the brainchild of Tony Rogers, a cellist who briefly lived in Portland before returning to the East Coast. Rogers wanted to form a flexible cello ensemble that could play with alternative and rock bands but also do Beethoven.
“Tony was amazed at how many cellists lived here and how many didn’t earn money by playing classical music,” recalls Douglas Jenkins, PCP co-founder and its current manager. “From our first show at the Musicians Union things have really grown. More cellists are drawn to Portland and want to play with us. We’re turning Portland into Celloland.”
The Cello Project consists of nine core cellists Jenkins identifies as the ones who started with the ensemble and “stayed through the bad shows and didn’t quit.” The core group decides on the programs and venues, and they get the first crack at performing. After Jenkins combs through the core group, he can then turn to a reserve list of 20 cellists.
Although a lot of musicians are needed for the rock numbers, PCP has a lot of arrangements that use as few as four cellists. It needs some large living rooms where a passel of cellists can practice. One of the core members, Justin Kagan, owns a coffee roastery that often serves as a rehearsal space for the big ensemble pieces.
Jenkins estimates that about half of the cellists on his roster earn their living from playing with rock groups and doing studio recordings. Their numbers are growing, since “Portland has one of the most vibrant music economies in the country,” according to Jenkins. “For young artists, Portland is still a relatively cheap place to live. You can make your art and not worry where the next check is coming from because the rent is so cheap. And artists here support each other. We pass gigs to each other if we have too many. The cello is crazy popular right now.”
Much of the current interest in cello is due to popularity of cello-rock groups like Apocolytica and the chamber-rock group Rasputina. PCP has teamed up with many local groups for performances at Holocene, The Doug Fir Lounge, the Someday Lounge, and the Wonder Ballroom, often performing compositions by PCP members. “Wherever we play, we try to make sure that the ticket price is inexpensive,” adds Jenkins.
A recent PCP concert that sold out the 650-seat Aladdin Theatre had a top ticket price of $12. PCP teamed up with Paul Turner, Heather Broderick, Weinland, Stephanie Schneiderman, Keith Shreiner, Rick Emerson, and The Builders and The Butchers to do new, popular music. I didn’t like the electronic amplification of the cellos, which distorted the sound, but that is a part of the deal when working with rock and alternative bands. What surprised me was the melancholy mood of almost all of the numbers until the final set when The Builders and The Butchers launched into some hard-driving rock and roll songs.
The audience was into all the music, including Jenkins’ arrangement of J. S. Bach’s Ciaccona from the Partita for Solo Violin #2 and Jenkins’ arrangement of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with soloist Sonja Mykleburst, a performance major from Lewis and Clark College. All of the cellists had occasional intonation problems. The audience ate it all up.
By performing different styles of music, PCP has become a bridge between classical and popular styles, a terrific achievement on any level. I wonder, though, how many of the PCP fans will try a concert by the Oregon Symphony, the Portland Baroque Orchestra, or Chamber Music Northwest.
Next up, PCP is making its first recording, to be released in August. “I just signed the distribution contract,” says Jenkins. “It’s a national release, so there’s four months of pre-promotion. We have a national publicist who is taking care of that. We’ve decided to go the independent route. It’s a DIY, do it yourself, release that fits our reputation.”