|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: www.pinkmartini.com