Portland Cello Project plays to packed house at the Old Church

If you’ve never experienced a live virtuoso cello concert, you’ve never known the warm sorrow and deep satisfaction the instrument evokes with its range and emotive resonance. Portland Cello Project, led by concert curator Diane Chaplin, delivered all of the cello’s vast potential and awed the standing-room-only audience at its April 30 concert at the Old Church in Portland.

The Old Church pews were so full at the opening of the show that the introducing emcee had to ask concertgoers to scrunch in so those standing by could be seated.

Known to its members as Cello Project and to loyal fans as PCP, the troupe is lauded for its innovation, wowing audiences with unconventional covers of heavy-metal arrangements, tributes to hip-hop composers and the melding of what’s old with what’s new. Some of that alchemy was present in the Saturday concert; however, the performance was mostly an exposition of the group’s classical proficiency.

Chaplin, the director of educational outreach for PCP and lead arranger for the concert, offered a disclaimer for the traditional set list, an uncommon lineup for the iconoclast group.

“For the ‘Virtuosi’ night, I wanted to demonstrate that a PCP show can contain a large dose of more serious music and still be varied, fun and eclectic,” Chaplin said. “We are definitely highlighting the virtuoso side of the players—there are some really hard technical tricks, and everyone gets to play lead at some point.”

The ensemble consisted of six cellists, each holding premier roles at various points throughout the evening’s performance. Arrangements included a wide-ranging score of historical juggernauts: Bach, Stravinsky and Vivaldi to name a few. Tempo and emotive lure mimicked everything from call and response to burlesque to symphonic grandeur.

“The emotional spectrum [was] everything from high energy to deep soulfulness,” Chaplin said.

The audience was so entranced with the cellists’ performance that whenever the musicians reached a simultaneous rest in their soli, their breathing was audible from the stage.

After their startup in 2007, PCP gained national acclaim and a following through notable gigs with “A Prairie Home Companion” and also as the subject of Kanye tweets as a result of their cover of his “All of the Lights” single.

Chaplin explained the group’s origins, citing a niche need for an all-cello ensemble.

“A lot of the players were doing nonclassical things, playing in bands, etc., and in that kind of setting, there is usually only one cellist. So the original idea was to get to hang out with other cellists, have fun and play nontraditional kinds of music,” Chaplin said.

Portland Cello Project live is pure skull-candy. The cello is an instrument of unique capability: It can groan deeply so that you feel it in your teeth and lungs and spine. It can dance on its toes and pirouette. The sound quality is stellar, and PCP is an ensemble in constant flux and reinvention of itself. Every one of their concerts provides a unique experience.

The Old Church, a carpenter-gothic architectural masterwork, now a nonprofit concert venue, was the perfect place for the group’s avalanche of cello virtuosi. The cathedral houses impeccable acoustics and one of Portland’s largest in-house organ fixtures, which now mantles several stage lights. The auditorium emits a positively medieval vibe with its high arched ceilings, ornate stained-glass windows and wrought-iron chandeliers.

Keep up with PCP concert dates and locations through their website: portlandcelloproject.com