The Portland Cello Project plays in venues across the nation, from concert halls to loading docks. The ten-piece ensemble introduces audiences to everything from cello-only arrangements of classical music to adaptations of Kanye West. One of their most recent stops was in the orchestra room at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, a women’s prison located in Eagle River. The facility started its own orchestra more than a decade ago.
Members of the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center Orchestra sit in the brightly painted tile room warming up on their instruments. Among them is Winona Fletcher, who’s been in prison for 33 years. She joined the program five years ago because by that time, she had already gone through all of the institution’s other rehabilitation programs, she said.
But Fletcher said this one changed her. For the first time in decades she felt “normal. I feel a little, yeah, not so un-human. It’s better than what I normally feel I think. I feel a little more free. Music just kind of has that effect. It lets you escape for a while.”
Now, Fletcher is the orchestra clerk and helps the teacher care for the instruments and the music room. Being in the orchestra taught her discipline and how to work with a team, she said. “It’s something that I think everybody should have to experience.”
Though Fletcher’s played for audiences of 300 people during the orchestra’s annual holiday concerts, she still found playing for the four-members of the Portland Cello Project nerve-wracking.
“’Cause you don’t want to mess up, but then you know that we haven’t been playing these songs very long so… You always want to do better for people who you know who are professionals,” Fletcher explained.
Portland Cello Project Artistic Director Douglas Jenkins said this is the first time the ensembles has worked with a prison orchestra.
“One of the big missions of Portland Cello Project has always been to bring the cello to places you wouldn’t normally see it in order to bridge communities together,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins explained the cello is a powerful instrument because its tones echo the range of the human voice and they want to show people it’s not just a vehicle for Beethoven and Bach.
They got their point across to Cassandra Hunicke, who started playing with the Hiland Orchestra about 10 years ago. “The versatility,” she remarked about the differing techniques. “How he could play like a guitar, and the strumming.”
The violin plays many roles in Hunicke’s life. It’s a connection to her stepdaughter who is learning the same instrument, and the vibrations heal her spiritually. She also sees it as a way to give back.
“Some way someone is going to be touched by it,” Hunicke said. “And it gives the opportunity for us to help someone else. The beginners ask for help all the time. Even in this environment, we’re helping somebody else.”
For Fletcher, learning new techniques from the Portland Cello Project and listening to them play gives her something to aspire to.
“I’m so grateful that they come in and, you know, I mean that’s their time,” Fletcher said. “So we’re blessed that they actually give us that.”
The Portland Cello Project is playing a concert for all of the women at Hiland and will be at the Anchorage Performing Arts Center this weekend.