In the fall of 2006 a group of 10 cellists got on stage at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge to perform western classical music in an informal setting.
Many of the cellists that night thought it would only happen once.
But slowly that one-off event became a second, and a third, playing Portland's most popular clubs (Holocene, Mississippi Studios), and by 2009 the group had evolved into a nationally recognized performance and educational group with a revolving cast of cellists, releasing full-length albums, performing everywhere from punk rock clubs to, loading dock street parties, to exclusive private events, and symphony halls all over North America, spending more than a quarter of the year touring, and featuring a diverse repertoire of well over 1,000 pieces of music.
While the group changed and evolved in a hundred different ways over the last decade, the one consistent focus has always been building bridges between different musical communities through collaboration with myriad artists to educational and community outreach at schools and universities around the country. The group absorbed an all-star team of Portland Cellists (including folks like Skip vonKuske, Diane Chaplin, Nancy Ives, and Kevin Jackson). Musical collaborators have included everyone from The Dandy Warhols to Garrison Keillor to Trampled By Turtles to Corin Tucker to Laura Veirs to Thao with the Get Down Stay Down, and cellists Maya Beiser, Ben Sollee and Zoe Keating.
"Before this recent Portland Cello Project concert, I’m not sure that I’d truly realized how important live performances can be in helping you appreciate music."
Time Magazine Online
"It doesn't get much more genre-crossing than this," - MTV.com
"This indie orchestra gives classical music a jolt of energy," - Spin Magazine
"PCP has come to epitomize Portland's offbeat music scene, one where boundaries are blurred and cellos are in abundance." - The Strad
"If you could see how crazy everyone around here gets whenever the PCP cello-izes a new hip-hop or pop hit (which is a lot), you'd understand why their Thing is the best Thing going in Portland," - IFC's Portlandia Blog
"A group of cello-wielding maniacs" - Spacelab Magazine
"An ace group of rotating cellists who take on everything from Britney's "Toxic" to the Dandy Warhols and postmodern Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in their one-off performances" - Entertainment Weekly
As our stay in Alaska wraps up tomorrow night with one final performance, I’m reflecting on the fact that a big part of this group that we don’t talk about very often is the community outreach we do as we travel the country, which is part of the philosophy to bring the cello places you wouldn’t normally see it. We are frequently in schools performing for or working with students of all ages, backgrounds and ability levels, sometimes for a few hours, and sometimes for a week or two collaboratively preparing performances.
In our stay this month in Alaska we’ve had two very unique outreach opportunities we think deserve more exposure.
The Alaska Cello Intensive in Fairbanks.
Maybe it’s because it’s cold outside (31 below zero when we got off the plane), so the best thing to do with your time is practice the cello.
Maybe it’s because they get a month of non-stop night in the winter, so who wants to go outside when they could be practicing the cello?
Maybe it’s because the aurora borealis is actually an alien being that is capable of imparting cello powers, and the citizens of Fairbanks have learned its secrets.
Whatever the reason, there are about 20 cellists in Fairbanks between the ages of 10 and 20 who play together in what is not only one of the coolest cello ensembles in the world, but also one that consists of a consistently talented group of young players. These kids have excellent technique and musicality – literally all of them can go on to play professionally if they choose to.
And beyond that, they know how to have fun. They’re never not smiling. They’re never not locking in with each other musically. Here’s the first video they sent us before we met – Robin Hood Changes His Oil played faster than we play it, and with choreographed dance moves (which… we’re starting to pick up ourselves…).
The Alaska Cello Intensive is run by Rebecca Levey who has kids in the program, one of whom auditioned at Julliard just a few days before we flew in (and just a few days after he pulled a moose from a freezing river using snow machines and carefully positioned levers with his siblings – he has the video proof of this).
Rebecca leads the group humbly, but with her heart and soul in a way which makes the kids work together as an ensemble in the most refreshing way. They smile. All the time, no matter how hard the work is. (And we know this because they had Diane Chaplin leading the workshop with them, so they were working hard.) They’re never not listening to each other carefully and looking around at each other, connecting musically.
In spite of the remoteness of Fairbanks, Rebecca has created a community that flies in and out to support the cellists in a way that has been remarkably successful.
Most of the students do Skype lessons with teachers in other parts of the country. Mary K Walters, who has performed with Cello Project over the past few years when we’re up in Seattle, flies to Fairbanks four times per year to coach and direct the Cello Choir portion of the program.
Luthier Mitsugo Gomikawa flies up for a few weeks each year to work on all the cellos in town.
It was an honor to perform with these wonderful Cellists in Fairbanks. We can only hope that our paths cross again soon.
Other notable facts about the Alaska Cello Intensive Choir.
The Alaska Cello Intensive flashmobbed the lobby of our show. And, I don’t really know how we can do another show without a cello flashmob in the lobby.
Here they are last Halloween, carving a cello-lantern in the snow so large they needed to get a ride in an airplane to see the whole thing because their camera drone couldn’t fly high enough to capture it all:
The Hiland Mountain Correctional Facility Women’s String Orchestra, Anchorage
As far as I can tell, the string orchestra run in the Hiland Mountain Correctional Facility is totally unique in the USA. Run by Anchorage Symphony Concertmaster Kathryn Hoffer, the program offers inmates the chance to learn to play stringed instruments even if they have no experience whatsoever.
We spent two days at the facility workshopping with the orchestra and performing for them and for some of the facility’s general population.
They were kind and patient people. (And we know this because we had Diane Chaplin leading the workshop with them, so they were working hard.) The performance was on International Women’s Day, and Diane pointed out that we were really happy to be spending it with so many strong women, and the audience erupted in proud cheers.
I’ve never felt an audience react so viscerally to music, swinging from happy to sad with us on a dime. One of the women drew us a picture of us during the performance. One of the women told us that it was the only concert she’s ever attended.
The way the orchestra members described it, Kathryn’s string program brings humanity to a place where it is sometimes forgotten. They were very articulate about how music and practicing their instruments offers them a release as they go through hard times.
An Alaska Public Radio journalist documented the rehearsal and got some interviews with the orchestra members showing insight on how music affects their lives: