Monday, December 24, 2012

Pink Martini

Severance Hall
December 19

Playing seasonal favorites to a Latin beat.

Pumping new life into holiday standards poses a formidable challenge – unless you’re Pink Martini, the pop orchestra from Oregon that recasts everything it plays into a mosaic of world music. Sharing the stage with the Cleveland Orchestra for two nights last week, the band took favorites ranging from We Three Kings to White Christmas out for a spin and lit up packed houses with the most cosmopolitan, entertaining concerts of the season.

The holiday songs were only one part of a program showcasing the group’s signature style, which dips liberally into foreign languages and repertoire, updates the classics in different keys and time signatures, sets most of the music to Latin rhythms, and makes it all pop with a big-band sound featuring three percussionists. There’s plenty of humor and wit in original pieces, like the back-to-back songs “And Then You’re Gone” and “But Now I’m Back.” But what most impresses is the group’s ability to seamlessly integrate wildly different genres of music – opening “La Soledad,” for example, with Chopin’s Andante Spianato, then segueing to a samba beat to support Spanish lyrics.

Over the course of the evening, the band also rolled out a Chinese New Year’s song, an aria from Verdi’s La forza del destino, a Hanukkah song in Ladino (a Judeo-Spanish hybrid), and a rousing version of Auld Lang Syne set to a Caribbean beat.

Bandleader Thomas Lauderdale orchestrated it all from the piano, with nine other instrumentalists backing torch-style singer China Forbes and guest vocalists that included Ari Shapiro. (Yes, that Ari Shapiro, who at one point slipped into broadcast character: “Ari Shapiro. NPR News. Cleveland.”) That’s a lot of musical talent, but the player who drew the biggest hand of the night was 95-year old clarinetist, conductor and composer Norman Leyden, who showed he still had some sly chops on “Hang On Little Tomato” and “Skylark.”

Every song that Pink Martini performs has a backstory, and for a change most of them are interesting. Forbes held the audience rapt with an extended version of how she and Lauderdale wrote the group’s 1997 hit “Sympathique,” watched it rise to the top of the charts in France, and went there only to get sued because they had copped the lyrics from French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, by way of Poulenc’s Hôtel. Lauderdale proudly explained how Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor for four hands provided the basis for “And Then You’re Gone,” then got chummy with Conductor James Feddeck at the keyboard for two pages of Schubert’s score before launching into the song.

The girl of his dreams.
Shapiro got the biggest laugh of the night with some gay guy humor. After Lauderdale explained that the band’s version of “Happy Days Are Here Again” is a reprise of the famous 1963 duet by Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, he looked at singers Shapiro and Forbes and asked, “Who’s who?” Without skipping a beat, Shapiro turned to the audience with stars in his eyes and replied, “It’s a dream come true for me – being Judy Garland.”

But the main attraction was the music, and in that the band did not disappoint. Behind all the high jinks there are some accomplished players, as solos by trumpeter Gavin Bondy and violinist Nicholas Crosa demonstrated. The big-band sound was hot on numbers like “Malagueña” and “The Flying Squirrel,” and the audience needed little encouragement to get up and form a conga line for the closing encore, a jumpin’ version of “Brazil.”

Partly because it was pushed so far back on the stage to make room for Pink Martini, the orchestra was easy to overlook. But Feddeck deserves more than a nod for fine accompaniment. Song after song, he managed to find precisely the right pitch and volume to enrich, soften or sharpen the band’s sound. If a 10-piece combo and singer can break new ground doing a samba version of “Little Drummer Boy,” it’s even more impressive to hear a full orchestra add just the right luster to the arrangement.

As Bela Fleck’s appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra earlier this month demonstrated, pop and classical don’t always mix. Fleck is a virtuoso on the banjo, and he was playing with one of the best orchestras in the world – but it was still oil and water, two tracks playing simultaneously rather than together. Pink Martini, by contrast, was an elegant fit, with a musical palette broad and smart enough to accommodate a symphony orchestra. And anything and anyone else who showed up on the stage.

For more on Pink Martini:

Friday, December 21, 2012

Holiday Music

Apollo’s Fire
December 14

CityMusic Cleveland
December 15

Sorrell's ensemble soared with the Messiah.

For classical music fans, the holidays are usually not the best time of year. It’s when serious music gets put on a shelf and venues and ensembles are given over to seasonal favorites and other light fare. So it was a treat to hear consecutive concerts that offered bright holiday packages without sacrificing a note of substance or quality.

Apollo’s Fire set a high-water mark for the season with its performance of Handel’s Messiah, which this critic took in at First Baptist Church in Shaker Heights on Friday night. The space certainly helped. Smaller venues where the ensemble performs, like Fairmount Presbyterian Church down the street, take some of the luster and definition out of the sound. Churches like First Baptist or Trinity Cathedral give it a chance to breathe and soar, as sacred music was intended to do.

Conducting from the harpsichord for much of the evening, Jeannette Sorrell drew a spirited performance from the ensemble, which played with precision and flair. Even when the full chorus joined in fortissimo, she maintained a buoyant quality in the sound, with airy vocals grounded by a taut, well-balanced bottom in the orchestra. It was a masterful bit of musicianship that took on added resonance in the second half, when the players reached deep into the emotional currents of the score.

The soloists were a somber group, especially the two men – tenor Karim Sulayman and baritone Jeffrey Strauss, who strode to the front of the stage with fire in their eyes and a demeanor that approached anger at times. That gave their vocals power, though added some perplexing dark tones to what is predominantly a joyous piece. Mezzo Amanda Crider has a lovely, agile voice that did not carry very far, notable mostly for her finely crafted expression. Soprano Meredith Hall sings with an emotional appeal that goes straight to the heart, occasionally lacking in technical finesse but otherwise rich and colorful, particularly in the higher registers.

On its own, the chorus could sound thin at times. And there were moments, like the Pifa in the first half, when the musicians seemed to be napping. But overall it was a commanding performance, beautiful in its period detail and captivating in its combination of skill and verve. For this critic, the performance also brought two firsts: hearing the Messiah performed in English, and the audience standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus. Purists might object to the former, but both added a sense of community to what is, after all, a shared religious experience.

The setting for CityMusic Cleveland’s Saturday night concert was equally inspiring – the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Slavic Village, where a heavenly hierarachy of statuary looks down from a towering main altar, multiple side altars and every corner and column throughout the nave and aisles. A packed house turned out to hear visiting German conductor (and cardiologist) Stefan Willich lead the young chamber orchestra in a program of Mozart and Mendelssohn, with Rebecca Schweigert Mayhew soloing on Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C major (K. 314).

Willich gave the music a satisfying European gloss, starting with a brisk rendition of the overture to The Marriage of Figaro. His phrasing and approach were exactly right, and the caliber of playing was quite good, especially given the ad hoc nature of the ensemble. The strength of the orchestra is its string section, which sounded crisp and graceful the entire evening. The other sections of the ensemble often seemed out of balance, with the horns bordering on muddy at times – though to be fair, hearing the concert from an obscured seat in the west transept didn’t help.

A modest soloist.
Schweigert Mayhew was a competent soloist, but she offered surprisingly little in the way of interpretation. Even the cadenzas were someone else’s (John Mack, former principal oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra). The concerto is not an easy piece and Schweigert Mayhew showed admirable fluency, but her bland reading seemed to seep into the orchestra, which lost some spark as well.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 was uneven, zesty at times with the Italian folk rhythms that Willich pointed out beforehand, but plodding in other passages. Again, given the nature of the ensemble, it would be churlish to nitpick the performance, which had a fine professional sheen under Willich’s baton. And the lapses certainly didn’t bother the audience, which also responded enthusiastically to a closing set of rather saccharine spirituals and holiday songs performed by the Mt. Zion Choir.

Both holiday concerts included appeals from the stage for donations, a necessity particularly in CityMusic’s case. Still, one had to wonder if the appeals hadn’t crossed the line when the audience at St. Stanislaus was told to stay in their seats at intermission until ushers had come around with collection baskets, just like at a Sunday service. Ronald and Eugenia Strauss are doing God’s work bringing free classical music to neighborhood churches, and deserve all the support they can get. But shaking down your fans at concerts is more crass than class, unworthy of the great tradition the organization is building and the glorious music that provides the impetus for it all.

For more on Apollo’s Fire:

For more on CityMusic Cleveland:

Sorrell photo: Chautauquan Herald