The dynamic musicians of the acclaimed Pink Martini joined the orchestra and Associate Conductor David Glover for a spectacular (and nearly sold-out) show as part of the North Carolina Symphony's offerings for the holiday season taking place in Meymandi Concert Hall. The program was a smorgasbord of holiday favorites (all cleverly adapted), originals, and jazz adaptations.
Created in 1994 in Portland, Oregon by pianist Thomas Lauderdale and vocalist China Forbes, Pink Martini is now an expanded and internationally-renowned ensemble with nine studio albums under their belt (the latest, Je di oui!, has just been released). The style of Pink Martini is difficult to pin down succinctly, but could perhaps be described as "multi" – multi-lingual and multi-talented, with influences from a multitude of genres and cultures. Pink Martini originals as well as their adaptations of songs are melting pots of textures, fascinatingly expanded to the concert stage from their studio recordings. Adding the entire NCS to Pink Martini, whose members create a "little orchestra" on their own, resulted in an atmospheric musical experience. Glover took on the daunting task of coordinating musicians both in front of and behind him with remarkable ease.
The concert began with a swung, rolling "Little Drummer Boy" that began quietly but grew with overlapping rhythms, lush, sweeping strings, and increased percussion. The use of a set of congas, played throughout by Miguel Bernal, made this version especially unique. This one song set the scene for the holiday songs to follow – a familiar tune juxtaposed with unexpected textures and rhythms. "We Three Kings" and "Auld Lang Syne" later in the program were similar in this way. Linguistic juxtaposition also had a prominent role in the program (and in Pink Martini's overall style) with half-English half-German "Ich Dich Liebe," the brassy Hanukkah tune "Ocho Kandelikas" written in Ladino (a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew), as well as songs in Armenian, Spanish, French, Croatian, and Arabic.
The sultry vocals of Forbes perfectly complemented the full combined orchestras along with cellist Pansy Chang, especially in the ethereal "U Plavu Zoru," a mysteriously chilling depiction of dawn. Miguel Bernal and Timothy Nishimoto contributed their vocals, too, Bernal on the wistful "Yo Te Queiro Siempre," and Nishimoto several times, most notably for the absolutely infectious "Donde Estas, Yolanda?" Each of these vocalists maintained a sense of the dramatic: Forbes with passionate movement and outstretched arms, Bernal with heartfelt styling, and Nishimoto with simultaneous percussion playing.
A definite highlight of the entire concert was "Hang On, Little Tomato," where Pink Martini and NCS were joined by local saxophonist and Community Music School of Raleigh student Nolan Wadill, a sophomore at Millbrook High School who did an excellent job with his moment in the spotlight. He played the melody as a solo first; Forbes joined in with a charming duet texture. Each performance of this song with the NCS features a different local student.
The second half of the concert saw performances of some of Pink Martini's most beloved songs, especially those that showcase the group's clever sense of humor. "Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler" ("I Don't Want to Work"), one of the group's earliest compositions, was bouncy yet romantic, with echoes of midcentury Parisian flair. "Hey Eugene" was a funny yet soulful ode to a romantic encounter gone awry. An uplifting rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" was exemplary of Pink Martini's joyous expression, making a formal music event seem more like an improvisational collaboration among passionate musicians. This quality was furthered with the use of bucket drums, and of course the addition of the triumphant orchestra. The night concluded with a dramatic performance of the famous "Brazil," where audience members formed conga lines and danced in the aisles, celebrating a concert that ended all too quickly.