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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New string theory

Portland Cello Project draws surprising repertoire from every musical corner

Portland Cello Project plays two shows in Spokane this weekend.
Portland Cello Project plays two shows in Spokane this weekend.

If you were to glance at a regular set list from the Portland Cello Project, you’d see a lot of names that aren’t (for good reason) grouped together often – Johann Sebastian Bach, Pantera, Britney Spears, Radiohead, Dave Brubeck.

But that eclectic mix of artists somehow makes sense as transformed through the bows and strings of the Cello Project, an ever-changing collective of Northwest cellists that aims to change your mind about the stylistic limitations of its titular instrument.

“One of our goals with Cello Project is opening up people to the idea of a cello as not just a classical instrument,” said Diane Chaplin, one of the group’s lead cellists. “But I do always hope that people who come and do hear us play a little classical music might be emboldened to actually go hear a classical concert somewhere else.”

Sure, the Portland Cello Project, which performs at the Bartlett tonight and Saturday, might play a classical piece from time to time. But they’re most famous for quirky arrangements of mainstream radio songs. Their extensive repertoire encompasses pop (Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”), hip-hop (Kanye West’s “All of the Lights”), video game music (the themes from “Halo” and “Super Mario Brothers”) and everything from the B-52’s gonzo classic “Rock Lobster” to OutKast’s genre-defying “Hey Ya!”

The group’s newest recording, “to e.s.,” is a 12-song tribute to late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who first rose to prominence while living in Portland in the late ’90s. The album features six Smith covers, including “Between the Bars” and “Needle in the Hay,” along with six original compositions inspired by Smith’s work.

“His stuff is very dark; he was a very troubled soul,” Chaplin said of Smith. “The darkness of his music translates really well to cellos.”

While Smith’s morose melodies are perfectly applicable to the tones of the cello, what’s especially surprising is how successfully the Portland Cello Project is able to translate hip-hop into their symphonic arrangements.

“The cello has a lyrical sense about it, so it’s nice to have music with melodic content of some sort,” Chaplin said. “That said, some of the most successful things we do are the hip-hop songs, where there’s no singing at all. We can actually approximate that really well on the cello, with the repetitive patterns.”

A typical Cello Project show is a high-energy collage of sounds and styles – hit up YouTube and you can see their original renditions of Duran Duran’s “Rio,” the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” This particular tour will feature five cellos and a drummer, and you’ll hear snippets and segments from a couple dozen songs you’ll likely be familiar with.

“We have a little saying, which is, ‘If for some reason you don’t care for what we’re playing right this second, wait five minutes and, just like the Portland weather, it will change,’ ” Chaplin said. “But it’s really a something-for-everyone kind of show. We’re more appealing to the audience that’s used to listening to things on the radio, and I don’t mean the classical station.”

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