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Portland Cello Project strings together successes

The Portland Cello Project performs Wednesday at the Bing Crosby Theater.
The Portland Cello Project performs Wednesday at the Bing Crosby Theater.

The Portland Cello Project started with a small cadre of classically trained cellists, in a living room over a couple of beers.

Then they performed at the local pub. And now? They’re all over the U.S., from sports bars in Texas to Portland Trailblazer halftime shows.

PCP – as the band is affectionately known by its fans – found its focus when it performed on stage with Portland folkie Laura Gibson. The band thought it would be awesome to follow Laura Gibson’s delicate folk Americana with Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”

So did the audience.

Ever since then, PCP has been on a three-pronged mission to bring the cello to places you wouldn’t normally hear it, play music you wouldn’t normally expect on a cello, and collaborate with a diverse assortment of artists all along the way.

“For me, a lot of those things aren’t done so much and it’s unfortunate because in music, the more diverse it is and the more accepting the audience is of that diversity, the stronger the music becomes,” PCP point man Douglas Jenkins said during a telephone interview. “Music is a form of communication that is so often overlooked, especially in classical music. It’s almost like there’s this invisible wall up between the audience and the performers. They don’t talk to them.”

With anywhere from eight to 12 cellos on stage, PCP performs dance pop, contemporary classical and original compositions written by any given member of the group.

To date, PCP has four official releases, including a collaborative album on the Kill Rock Stars label with indie artists Thao with the Get Down Stay Down and Justin Powers, as well as an album of darker instrumentals in 2010 and a digital-only cover of Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” in February.

“Kill Rock Stars said in order to do (‘All of the Lights’) we had to have it out in three days. We didn’t have any time to think about that one. We recorded it in essentially the oldest church in Portland and we didn’t stop to think about the drums,” Jenkins said. “Because we were in an old church the drums sound gigantic, more hip-hop than hip-hop. I’d like to do a whole album of hip-hop covers in there.”

Boasting an 800-piece repertoire, PCP prides itself on playing almost entirely new arrangements for every performance cycle. As one of the band’s strongest anchors, Jenkins typically pens 15-20 new scores for each run.

PCP has a special collaboration planned with Spokane singer-songwriter Janet Johnson, who is the opening act for Wednesday’s concert at the Bing Crosby Theater.

“Just by the design of the ensemble, we’re forced to come up with new songs all the time,” Jenkins said. “In Portland and Seattle we always play a new set of music. It also seems like it happens whenever we make a new program because we’re so heavy on the collaborative side and constantly working with other musicians.”

The flexibility to play virtually anything, anywhere, with anyone is the fundamental difference that separates the Portland Cello Project from traditional symphony orchestras, Jenkins said.

“In a nonprofit symphony you have your board and it’s more difficult to make changes,” he said. “We don’t have that pretense. We don’t have a board. We can do whatever we want and change the program the night before the show and not have to talk to anybody about it.”