Portland Cello Project brings rousing indie-classical performance to Big Sky

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

BIG SKY – Portland Cello Project opened its Jan. 25 Big Sky show with White Winter Hymnal by the Fleet Foxes, the indie rock band’s tribute to winter. Cellos crooned lead singer Robin Pecknold’s lyrics, moved through guitar melodies and strummed deep bass melodies.

Founded in 2007, the group – known to fans as PCP – brought six cellists to the stage of the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center, along with a drummer, trumpet, vocalist and for one song, a ukulele, which narrator and artistic director Doug Jenkins jokingly called a “mini cello.”

They went on to play arrangements of songs by hip hop artist Kanye West, jazz musician Dave Brubeck, pop artist Beck Hansen, classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach, as well as original pieces written by members of the group.

With a threefold mission, PCP aims to bring the cello to places you wouldn’t normally hear it (the Filling Station in Bozeman and a punk club in Fargo, N.D., for example); to play cello music you wouldn’t normally hear played on the instrument; and to build bridges across musical communities by bringing a diverse assortment of musical collaborators on stage.

To Big Sky they brought Radiation City singer songwriter Patti King, with whom they’d recently recorded Beck’s Song Reader Project, an album Beck released only as sheet music.

With a smooth voice that complemented the cellos’ clear, soul-filling lyrical tenor, King set the tone for a fun evening that exemplified the elemental importance of seeing music live.

“Her voice was reminiscent of almost a modern day, quiet Etta James. It’s a really buttery jazzy tone that’s easy to listen to… not lazy, but effortless,” said WMPAC Artistic Director John Zirkle. “After she sang those first two songs, I was waiting for her to come out the rest of the show.”

Zirkle thought PCP’s version of the pop-classical binary worked well together.

“Both the classical number and pop numbers stood in relief and sharp contrast to each other in a way that wasn’t terribly earnest…They clearly have a very strong, classical trained base which enables them to have this varied repertoire.”

A cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” left the audience cheering, and local cellist Noah Ronczkowski in awe. The song by the British alternative rock band tells the story of a telephone that’s afraid someone is out to get it, according to Jenkins, and in it, PCP’s cellists played impossibly high notes, as well as thumping bass.

“They rock,” said Ronczkowski, who has played the cello for 27 years and is also a Big Sky Resort ski patroller. “I like how the different cellos brought out different parts of the song. They spoke the song in cello language.”

With a repertoire of more than 800 pieces and more than 25 cellists in its rotating cast of performers, PCP performs a new program every night. Jenkins arranges most of the group’s music, with Kevin Jackson and Skip vonKuske – both of whom performed at WMPAC – also contributing arrangements.

The group gave the set list to Zirkle 15 minutes before the show and WMPAC production intern Rachid Schultz, a student at Lone Peak High School, designed all of the lighting. Zirkle and Schultz spent the entire day prior to the show prepping, and Schultz improvised that night.

“He had full endorsement from them to go wild, and that’s what he did,” Zirkle said. “He just dove right in.”

In their version of Brubeck’s classic jazz piece “Unsquare Dance,” Jenkins led the audience in a clapping beat, which they held throughout the song as the band drummed their hands on their cellos during the performance.

Closing the night out with astonishing energy and drawing a standing ovation, they hammered out Jay Z and Kanye’s “Ninjas in Paris,” Dizzy Gilespie’s “Night in Tunisia” and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” vonKuske and Diane Chaplin alternating the lead solo “violin” parts on their cellos.

Ski film icon and part time Big Sky resident Warren Miller and his wife Laurie were in attendance that night at the sold-out show. The performing arts center is named for Miller, and this is the first event of its debut season that Miller has attended.

The Arts Council of Big Sky brought this show to town as part of the WMPAC debut season. Arts council Executive Director Brian Hurlbut chose the Cello Project because it fit both a WMPAC and ACBS goals.

“John wanted something a little more out of the box, and that fell in line with the rest of his [debut] program. The ACBS brings in music we think will be liked and enjoyed by the whole community… I really thought Portland Cello Project would appeal to everybody.

ACBS is also bringing the Brubeck Brothers Quintet to Big Sky on Feb. 20.

Upcoming at WMPAC is a production of The Moth Mainstage on Feb. 15. Find more at warrenmillerpac.org. The performing arts center is located in Gallatin Canyon, on the grounds of the Big Sky School District.