You will either have a lot of fun with this record, or none at all. If you are a classical music purist with no use for popular music and find the word “bitch” on a song title to be an unspeakable affront, you may want to move on. For fans with more general musical tastes, the seven cellists of the Portland Cello Ensemble have come up with an album that is full of creative, effective arrangements of hip-hop songs, a couple of contemporary compositions based on famous hip-hop tunes, and a strange but not unwelcome piece by Argentine-American composer Osvaldo Golijov. The group’s version of Lil Wayne’s “She Will,” which opens this album, is killer. The rapper’s song is revealed to have a lovely melody, spun here by an oboe over a rich, gently throbbing wave of cellos and underpinned by two busy but restrained percussionists. Kanye West & Jay Z’s “That’s My Bitch” is more uptempo; their “H*A*M” is slower, pizzicato-heavy, and builds to an almost orchestral climax; and Outkast’s smash hit “Hey Ya” is a simple, drum-driven blast of cello and brass. But the group’s own compositions, especially the “Fugue on a Monstrous Theme,” based on Kanye West’s “Monster,” treat their pop music elements the way centuries’ worth of classical composers have treated folk and popular music: as source material for the working out a musical process. Both the Fugue and the “Canon on a Lollipopalicious Theme” (based on Lil Wayne’s single-entendre hit “Lollipop”) dispense with drums and use the cello ensemble in a genuinely classical setting. At least, the form is classical, even if the content is not.
Another recording of Golijov’s “Lua Descolorida” is not necessarily something the world has been crying out for, especially given the definitive nature of Dawn Upshaw’s version of it. Perhaps the ensemble felt that they needed to remind us of their serious chops before the album ended; but if so, their concern was unfounded. Still, this somber, dolorous piece of “night music” provides an unexpectedly effective conclusion to the album.