Portland Cello Project covers everything from Kanye to Bach

Chris Bieri
Cellist Kelley Quesada plays Thursday. Portland Cello Project gave a performance to about 100 people at Anchorage Community Works Thursday evening, March 6, 2014. The ensemble of five cellists mixes modern and classical genres in its arrangements, and were joined for some songs by a trumpet player and a vocalist. The Òsecret concertÓ was hosted by the Anchorage Concert Association as a preview to two performances this weekend at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, which were nearly sold out as of Thursday evening.
Marc Lester
Skip vonKuske plays a Pantera song with four other cellists. Portland Cello Project gave a performance to about 100 people at Anchorage Community Works Thursday evening, March 6, 2014. The ensemble of five cellists mixes modern and classical genres in its arrangements, and were joined for some songs by a trumpet player and a vocalist. The Òsecret concertÓ was hosted by the Anchorage Concert Association as a preview to two performances this weekend at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, which were nearly sold out as of Thursday evening.
Marc Lester
Vocalist Patti King performed with the Portland Cello Project Thursday. Portland Cello Project gave a performance to about 100 people at Anchorage Community Works Thursday evening, March 6, 2014. The ensemble of five cellists mixes modern and classical genres in its arrangements, and were joined for some songs by a trumpet player and a vocalist. The Òsecret concertÓ was hosted by the Anchorage Concert Association as a preview to two performances this weekend at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, which were nearly sold out as of Thursday evening.
Marc Lester
Portland Cello Project gave a performance to about 100 people at Anchorage Community Works Thursday evening, March 6, 2014. The ensemble of five cellists mixes modern and classical genres in its arrangements, and were joined for some songs by a trumpet player and a vocalist. The Òsecret concertÓ was hosted by the Anchorage Concert Association as a preview to two performances this weekend at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, which were nearly sold out as of Thursday evening.
Marc Lester
Trumpet player John Whaley waits to take the stage. Portland Cello Project gave a performance to about 100 people at Anchorage Community Works Thursday evening, March 6, 2014. The ensemble of five cellists mixes modern and classical genres in its arrangements, and were joined for some songs by a trumpet player and a vocalist. The Òsecret concertÓ was hosted by the Anchorage Concert Association as a preview to two performances this weekend at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, which were nearly sold out as of Thursday evening.
Marc Lester
Doug Jenkins performs. Portland Cello Project gave a performance to about 100 people at Anchorage Community Works Thursday evening, March 6, 2014. The ensemble of five cellists mixes modern and classical genres in its arrangements, and were joined for some songs by a trumpet player and a vocalist. The Òsecret concertÓ was hosted by the Anchorage Concert Association as a preview to two performances this weekend at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, which were nearly sold out as of Thursday evening.
Marc Lester
Portland Cello Project gave a performance to about 100 people at Anchorage Community Works Thursday evening, March 6, 2014. The ensemble of five cellists mixes modern and classical genres in its arrangements, and were joined for some songs by a trumpet player and a vocalist. The Òsecret concertÓ was hosted by the Anchorage Concert Association as a preview to two performances this weekend at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, which were nearly sold out as of Thursday evening.
Marc Lester
Skip vonKuske plays with four other cellists Thursday. Portland Cello Project gave a performance to about 100 people at Anchorage Community Works Thursday evening, March 6, 2014. The ensemble of five cellists mixes modern and classical genres in its arrangements, and were joined for some songs by a trumpet player and a vocalist. The Òsecret concertÓ was hosted by the Anchorage Concert Association as a preview to two performances this weekend at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, which were nearly sold out as of Thursday evening.
Marc Lester
Vocalist Patti King sings Thursday. Portland Cello Project gave a performance to about 100 people at Anchorage Community Works Thursday evening, March 6, 2014. The ensemble of five cellists mixes modern and classical genres in its arrangements, and were joined for some songs by a trumpet player and a vocalist. The Òsecret concertÓ was hosted by the Anchorage Concert Association as a preview to two performances this weekend at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, which were nearly sold out as of Thursday evening.
Marc Lester

Doug Jenkins says Portland Cello Project's impulse is to go where the wind blows.

That whimsical musical model has led the group, a rotating collective of cellists, to perform work by artists as diverse as Kanye West, Pantera and J.S. Bach.

Jenkins co-founded the band in 2007 and develops most of the musical arrangements for the ensemble's repertoire of over 1,000 songs. He said in the beginning the group didn't plan to do anything more than establish a new platform for cello music to be heard.

"We didn't set out to do anything," he said. "It evolved to this point. No one set out with the idea, 'in five years we're going to sound like this.' We're definitely cello advocates and (a showcase) for what the cello can do, but we're also musical advocates, bringing music together. We try to do performances in places that normally wouldn't get this kind of music."

Anchorage is the next stop on the Cello Project's current tour, with a pair of shows at the Discovery Theatre this week.

The group didn't form with ambitions of dipping its toes into nearly every musical genre.

"I think Portland randomly had cellists move here that played different kinds of music," Jenkins said. "We all just got together; the original idea was to play classical music together. Over a few beers, we said, 'let's try to play classical music at bars.' That's not an original idea. The first couple of concerts, we'd bring friends on stage and collaborate."

The Cello Project began to move away from classical music and toward pop and other genres that don't normally feature the instrument.

"There were musicians who thought we should do classical musical recitals and those people moved on kind of quickly," Jenkins said. "The further away we go from what we're used to, the more fun we have."

Portland Cello Project started with a handful of cellists and now boasts more than 20 players on its roster.

"Everybody in the group is classically trained and has a background in classical and orchestral music," Jenkins said. "Some of the members have gone on to play folk, rock and jazz. You'll hear those individual voices in this concert. Everybody came together to do this. It's so fun to be able to play so many different kinds of music."

The band got some widespread attention in early 2011 when it posted a video of a cover of West's recently released "All of the Lights."

"We did the Kanye West song live a week after it came out and it immediately got a half-million hits," Jenkins said.

Cello Project continues performing adaptations of contemporary music, covering everything from Radiohead to Taylor Swift and recording 20 songs from Beck's sheet music album "Song Reader" with a variety of singers.

Not every attempt at defying convention has been successful.

"There's a lot of stuff that hasn't worked," he said. "More than we could count. Some of the stuff doesn't get to the stage. It's always a gimmick, but we try to make sure it's quality."

Jenkins said the vocal quality and range of the instrument makes the cello ideal for arrangements of pop or rock songs.

"It's chamber music rather than orchestral -- everyone having an individual voice instead of that layered sound," he said.

The group is best known for its variety of eclectic covers, but has also produced songs written by members of the group.

"Denmark," written by Gideon Freudmann, was featured as the soundtrack of a short film by the same name. Initially issued as the lead track on the Portland Cello Project album "A Thousand Words," the group approached director Daniel Fickle about directing a video for the song. Fickle took the song, an ode to a friend of Freudmann's who had died of cancer, and developed a screenplay around it.

Portland Cello Project concerts generally include between a half-dozen and 20 cellists, along with other instrumentalists and vocalists (the Anchorage concerts will include five cellists). Fellow Oregonian Patti King will also join in for some of the songs performed in Anchorage.

Overall, the competition for solo parts and the backbiting that can occur in orchestras and philharmonic groups has been weeded out in favor of a unified approach, Jenkins said.

"There was (competitive behavior) earlier in the group's history," he said. "I think the last few years it's gone away. You get realistic at a certain point about what you can do and what someone can do better. The people that are really competitive or jealous work themselves out of the group. The ones that enjoy it have stayed."

 


By Chris Bieri
Daily News correspondent