Their name might initially evoke a “Sex and the City”-era fad cocktail or the latest scantily-clad quintet of would-be Britneys, but Pink Martini – a dectet of rising classical stars trained with a retro-internationalist swerve to their music – are simultaneously stylistically fresh and artistically strong enough to make a significant impact on both contemporary pop and classical music. The group brought a bright, danceable brand of jazz-infused Latin grooves and multilingual love songs to Meymandi Concert Hall for an evening of globe-hopping pops with the North Carolina Symphony.
Knowledgeable and effusive hostess Joan Landry, NCS Assistant Conductor, led the orchestra – dressed for the occasion in sharp white jackets – in a program of ballet suites, operatic overtures, and mid-century Brazilian pop. The evening’s internationalist theme could have been “Pops for Pedants” – that is, “serious” classical music that sounds more like a familiar film score, dance tune, or AM pop instrumental than an art form a layperson couldn’t hope to understand.
Anxious woodwind trills and slinky, spooky motion of Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance” opened the evening. Next came 19th-century French innovator Hector Berlioz's “Roman Carnival Overture,” a greatest hits-esque medley of themes from his opera Benvenuto Cellini; the fervent, gilt-edged trills and leaps of the overture’s main theme and its dreamy, dramatic love song convey the high-profile intrigue, romance, and drama of the 16th-century Italian goldsmith’s soap opera-worthy life story.
An arrangement of Brazilian bossa nova pioneer Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema” followed; although the song has aged poorly – it’s often used as an example of kitschy muzak – it was an international 1960s hit that brought bossa nova to the rest of the world. This arrangement treats the tropical tranquility of its signature theme with great care, weaving slight variations throughout the texture of the orchestra before culminating in the maddeningly catchy melody listeners know. “Two Dances from Cakewalk,” from Louis Gottschalk and Hershey Kay’s dance-off-themed ballet suite, employed pop-style percussion and a processional fanfare. To close the half, the orchestra gave depth to the almost cloyingly sweet melodies of an arrangement of tunes from songsmith Cole Porter’s musical “Can-Can.”
Meymandi may be the home of the North Carolina Symphony, but the ensemble gave center stage to Pink Martini for the evenings second half. The Portland, OR-based ensemble – founded by pianist Thomas M. Lauderdale and comprised of hotshot players from New York, Portland, and even the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – takes stylistic cues from retro Latin Americana, smoky nightclub standards, and contemporary jazz: Over a beguiling hybrid beat composed of gentle conga thumps, crisp bongo hits, doggedly instinctive jazz drumming, and insectile clave snaps, the ensemble treats vintage mambos, torch songs from foreign movie musicals, and smoldering cabaret numbers with a signature sound drawn from those and other international styles and eras. After a full-orchestra lineup that could stand alone as an evening of unique pops selections, Pink Martini took the stage, warming up on guitars, piano, cello, violin, Latin percussion, trumpet, and drums with an instantly recognizable bossa nova-style treatment of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.”
Pink Martini’s arrangements often include orchestra, and the NCS sat in on about two thirds of the night’s fifteen-or-so short second-half selections. Although the instrumentalists onstage energized the eager, fresh-from-intermission audience, the group’s set didn’t really begin until the arrival of singer China Forbes. The charming, versatile chanteuse with a deep, fluid tone and impeccable dynamic control led the ensemble through a typically diverse program.
Forbes began with a tune performed by one of her stylistic idols, 1930s Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda. Backup vocalist/percussionist Timothy Ishimoto joined Forbes next for “Anna (El Negro Zumbon),” a tune from a 1950s Italian film; this version featured a combined cello/trumpet duet that created a bright yet chilling tonal texture. The fiery, confrontational “Donde Estas, Yolanda” and “Una Noche in Napoli,” along with several self-penned compositions – including the balladic “The Gardens of Sampson and Beasley,” the torn-between-two-cultures love song “Dosvedanya Mio Bambino,” “To All the Girls in France,” the solo-heavy, wildly swinging instrumental “Song of the Flying Squirrel,” and “Sympatique” (whose oh-so-French refrain, translated, is “I don’t want to work. I don’t want to eat lunch. I just want to forget, and then I smoke”) – were set in styles ranging from luxuriant lounge to rapid, energetic mambo. The lineup closed with a blistering rendition of Lecuona's “Malagueña,” culminating in pounding piano hits, frantically lurching accelerandi and decellerandi, and a full-scale dynamic assault from all 80-or-so musicians onstage. But this lovestruck audience demanded more. Pink Martini ended the night winking at their newly enamored fans with the classic seduction song “Amado Mio”: “Love me forever, and let forever begin tonight.”
Pink Martini’s performance ethos is based primarily on world-class execution, but the relaxed edge of improvised jazz brought on by the group’s large size and unique instrumentation – along with a touch of Vegas-style swagger, mostly thanks to Forbes’ carefree, magnetic persona – gives the group the sheen of seasoned entertainers in addition to an open, vital hipness. It’s just what the North Carolina Symphony needed to create excitement for the rest of this season’s pops series.
A program so varied and sophisticated may be seen as only a small step forward for the NCS in terms of audience outreach and artistic exploration. But this installment in the series is more than a gambit for relevance in a confusing, sometimes cutthroat cultural climate. Programming like this indicates a forward-thinking organization intent on establishing artistic innovation and audience interaction as the cornerstone of 21st-century classical performance. The success of this too-brief partnership with vanguards like Pink Martini should encourage the NCS to continue on this path – and Triangle audiences ought to keep an eager eye out for the orchestra’s next step forward.