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Pop Goes the Cello

La Cella Bella, a Las Cruces cello quartet, proves that the classical stringed instrument can make beautiful music playing works by the Beatles as well as Brahms.

By Jeff Berg

 

An acquaintance of mine, Lee Herman, posted this glowing review recently on his MySpace page about one of Las Cruces' newest and most unusual musical groups, La Cella Bella:

"Tonight's show at the Bean in Mesilla, NM, was a bit different — La Cella Bella. Four women, Alison, Debra, Tatiana and Amy, have formed a cello quartet. Three of the women are in the New Horizons Orchestra and all are talented musicians. Cello quartets are not common to begin with, but La Cella Bella has another twist — most of their repertoire consists of popular music by the Beatles, Eric Clapton, the Eagles, Alicia Keyes, Kenny Rogers and others with a few classical pieces thrown in (Bach and Handel this evening). They do their own arrangements of the songs to make them work on the cello, taking turns playing 'lead' cello. One of the highlights of the evening was 'Hotel California' by the Eagles. While they announced that they had just started playing it, they performed it with spirit and authority. The magic of La Bella Cella is that they made 'Hotel California' their own as music for cellos yet captured the essence of this familiar rock and roll anthem."

I heard them for the first time myself shortly after that, and was, like Lee, hooked on the inventiveness and sound of their music.

La Cella Bella, left to right: Amy Muise, Debbie Eckles, Alison Reynolds, Tatiana Dickens.

The cello is usually seen and heard as a purveyor of some of the lowest sounds offered by an instrument that falls in the violin family. Often the cello is associated with chamber music, where it is used for solo performances, or as part of the string section of an orchestra.

But Alison Reynolds, Debbie Eckles, Tatianna Dickens and Amy Muise are indeed using the cello for something different. "It's out of the norm, and that's why it's fun," says Reynolds, the leader of the group.

These four — along with a couple of other women, one who has since moved away and another, Tiffany Kunkel, who is a backup — have been doing gigs for over a year and a half in and around Las Cruces.

"We started doing the coffeehouses, and things have kind of blossomed from there," says Reynolds. La Cella Bella has also done shows at the Rio Grande and Fountain Theatres, neither of which is known for big paychecks, but such venues give good exposure that can pay off for musicians.

 

Reynolds came to Las Cruces in 1996 from California. She is originally from El Paso, and has lived all over the US and in Canada. Her other musical talents include numerous string instruments such as the guitar and mandolin, and she once played with the Bakersfield (Calif.) Symphony.

"My passion for playing started at about age nine, and I later spent 10 years with a band in Canada, where I played guitar and did vocals," she says. "I currently teach private cello lessons and work with my horses as much as I can."

A cooler-weather person who likes to explore new places to live, Reynolds hints that she may be on the lookout for someplace else to live in the future, but for now, Las Cruces is a good place to be.

Fellow cellist Debbie Eckles recently returned home to Las Cruces after being away for a number of years, in places including Seattle and St. Louis, and plans on staying. Eckles has played with both the El Paso and Las Cruces Symphony Orchestras, and is a latecomer to the cello.

"I am a classically trained violinist," says Eckles, "and actually started learning cello from Alison."

Eckles has been teaching violin using the Suzuki method for about a dozen years, and also has an interest in the viola. "It is closer to the violin and has the same strings. It is a midrange instrument, which is kind of like the alto of the string section."

Reynolds and Eckles also play with the aforementioned New Horizons Orchestra, a local chapter of New Horizons International, which encourages the over-50 set to learn music or to renew their skills.

"I was desperate to find someone else to play with," Reynolds recalls. "And the four of us just decided to get away for kicks. There is not enough cello music in the world, and we felt that there was a need for more."

 

They joined up with Tatianna Dickens, who says, "I started playing cello when I was seven, but took a 14-year hiatus from 1990-2004 when my life became too busy with college, supporting my husband through law school, having my kids, and facilitating my son's recovery from autism. I absolutely adore playing now, as I am often seeking a peaceful, enjoyable escape from my otherwise incredibly busy life."

The fourth member of La Cella Bella, Amy Maise, is an assistant editor of educational publications at NMSU. She moved to the area in 2001 and lives near Lake Valley, south of Hillsboro. "I began playing cello at age 12, via coercion by a sneaky friend," Maise says. "She told the conductor of our junior-high orchestra, who was short on celli, that I was going to take up the instrument, then pointed me out to him in the cafeteria and let him accost me. I was too embarrassed to correct the fabrication. My parents were appalled."

Maise played in orchestras through her undergraduate years. In her mid-20s she started playing traditional Celtic and then old-time music with dance bands. "Joining La Cella Bella was a natural expansionist step," she says, "since we play music of all genres — with the exception of Metallica, as we don't want to tread on Apocalyptica's toes." That Finnish cello quartet has already claimed that specialty.

"Playing with the group has definitely challenged my musical abilities, which, compared to those of the other members of La Cella Bella, are rudimentary!" Maise adds. "It's particularly demanding because the four parts fit together so intricately and require that each player be listening and matching timing and intonation with each other player, without any one instrument keeping the beat. There's also no other instrument masking the register of the cello, and so every single note has to be self-supporting yet subtle enough not to overpower the other celli."

Maise also plays the old-time fiddle. "I would say that playing the cello, compared to playing the fiddle, is a full-body endeavor, a flexibility workout for the fingers, hands, arms, ears, spine. They should install (silent) cello machines in gyms as an alternative to yoga."

 

Reynolds fondly recalls the quartert's first gig, which took place at The Bean: "I had been arranging different songs for us — 'Over the Rainbow' was stuck in my head — and we did our first set of 11 songs. The place was packed, so we did another set. Not counting the classical, we now have about three to four hours of sets we can do."

That repertoire now includes a set of film themes, including Dr. No, and cello renditions of alt-rock music from the band Green Day.

Reynolds says that the hardest part is constructing the arrangements of their songs. "I like people to see that you can apply classical techniques to other music," she says. "People can relate to it, and lots of people can relate to the Beatles."

Reynolds arranges almost all of the songs, and it sometimes takes her about two weeks of work to ready a piece for the women to play. "It's easier if I have a CD to listen to while I am working at the piano, and the hard part of it is getting permission (copyright related) to do so."

But in the end it's worth it. La Cella Bella is gaining a steady and larger audience. Although no CD of their performances is currently available, the women toy with the idea from time to time.

Eckles says, "The range and richness of the tones in a cello are not so high as to lose warmth. It is kind of like a human voice."

And Reynolds adds with a smile, "The cello is the greatest instrument in the world."

 

To book La Cella Bella for a party, wedding or other event ("we'd even consider funerals," quips Reynolds), contact Alison Reynolds at 649-5135 or by e-mail at lacellabella@yahoo.com.

 

Senior writer Jeff Berg once carried a tune in a bucket.


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