Is there anything more entrancing than the sound of a cello? How about five cellos? How about five cellists who hail from the hippest, most enlightened city in America playing their own arrangements of Bach, Brubeck, and Beck with all the verve and energy of an indie rock band?
That's pretty much what I witnessed last night at (le) Poisson Rouge, where the Portland Cello Project made their latest NYC appearance. Founded in the Rose City in 2006, the PCP seems to have hit the sweet spot of classical chops married to indie appeal, playing everywhere from small Portland clubs to the halftime of a Trailblazers game.
Joined by Jolie Holland on vocals, PCP riffed on everyone from Kanye West and Jay-Z to Bach and Brubeck. Bandleader and chief arranger Doug Jenkins was a charming host throughout, making self-effacing references to Portland and telling us that PCP was the first "band" to record Beck's sheet-music-only release "Song Reader," from which they played several selections.
Joining Jenkins were fellow cellists Kevin Jackson, Skip vonKuske, Anna Fritz, and PCP's newest member, Kelly Quesada, who seemed simultaneously terrified and thrilled playing her first NYC gig. Together, their playing was crisp and assured, making full use of their instrument's five-octave range: close your eyes, and you could almost imagine a string quintet.
While the standing room-only house seemed completely jazzed by the show, I couldn't get past seeing PCP as something of a novelty—not quite crossover act, but not legitimate ensemble either. There's no permanance in being a cover band, no matter how tight your arrangements or solid your abilities. People don't want to hear an interpretation of someone else's music; they want the real thing. And, while PCP did play one or two originals last night—"Denmark" by Gideon Freudmann was particularly engaging—they need to shift the balance far more in that direction.
Still, these guys have their "showness" down pat: everything from their stage presence, to their encore (Led Zeppelin, Pantera) and merch table, which was completely jammed after the show. Classical, and even new-music peeps, could learn a thing or two from these guys about how to build a loyal and enthusiastic fan base without dumbing things down—it's telling that PCP has twice as many Facebook likes as their own city's orchestra.
NY Phil: Are you listening?