The NSO Pops season kicked off with a bang last night as conductor Steven Reineke and his musicians welcomed Pops-favorite Pink Martini featuring vocalist China Forbes to The Kennedy Center stage. Together with the always strong Pops, the 11-piece group took us on a fun, retro around-the-world adventure with a cool repertoire featuring songs in a range of styles, rhythms, and languages.
We began the evening’s journey with the flamenco instrumental by Ernesto Lecuona, “Malagueña.” The keyboard skills of Pink Martini founder Thomas Lauderdale shone in the piece that builds to a huge, rousing finish. The gloriously rich vocals of China Forbes brought “Amado Mio” to life. The smoky, bolero rhythms got hips moving (I’m looking at you, Steven Reineke). We continued our journey as “Sympathique,” “Ich Dich Liebe, and “¿Donde estas Yolanda” took us to France, Germany, and Spain. The latter was sung by Pink Martini vocalist and percussionist Timothy Nishimoto whose charming, easy style was a winner.
The evening’s program also included The von Trapps, the great-grandchildren of the Captain and Maria von Trapp of The Sound of Music fame. The four siblings (grandchildren of Kurt “I’m Kurt. I’m 11. I’m incorrigible” von Trapp) collaborated with Pink Martini on their 2014 album “Dream a Little Dream”.
Making their Kennedy Center and NSO debuts, The tight harmonies and bright, bouncy style of Sofia, Melanie, Amanda, and August von Trapp continued in the international vein, opening with “Die Dorfmisik.” For me, the song was performed well but the song itself is too reminiscent of The Sound of Music’s “Lonely Goatherd” with its yodeling. Their cover of “Dream a Little Dream” was much stronger with Amanda’s soulful, expressive vocals. The quartet have been singing together for more than twelve years and prove they are deserving of their own place in the family legacy in “Storm,” an original song written by August. The a capella piece is a complex, moving composition that soars.
The evening’s first set ended with Pink Martini’s “The Flying Squirrel.” The big band number gave each of the group’s instrumentalists a chance to strut their stuff. Despite being in the 2,500 seat Concert Hall, we were taken to a jazz club from the past as the horn section, Gavin Bondy on trumpet and Antonis Andreou on trombone, wowed the crowd both as a section and in solos. Dan Faehnle (guitar), Phil Baker (upright bass) and Anthony Jones (drums) also offered jazz club worthy solos. Lauderdale had invited the audience to get up and dance. Kudos to the six or eight people with the nerve to do so.
Following the intermission China returned to the stage with a costume change. I know it’s shallow but oh my, the girl does know how to work a cape. The second set kicked off with “U Plavu zoru,” a Croatian song that opened with a haunting cello solo by Pansy Chang, a graduate of James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia.
“Hang on Little Tomato” is a song that is exemplifies the Pink Martini style. It’s got a retro but still cool vibe and its origins are a bit wacky. Written by Forbes, Lauderdale, and Patrick Abbey, it was inspired by a Hunt’s Ketchup ad campaign and is ultimately a song of hope. “Bukra Wb’Ado” followed, a song in Arabic sung by Forbes with backup vocals by Nishimoto.
Lauderdale introduced the next song, “And Then You’re Gone” as “Hit the Road, Jack” meets “I Will Survive” meets Franz Schubert, with an Afro Cuban beat. That eclectic mix began with Reineke joining Lauderdale on the piano for the opening themes of Franz Schubert’s Fantasy in F-minor for piano and four hands. “But Now I’m Back” follows with the male response to Forbes’ tale of a woman who has tells the philandering Lorenzo to get lost. NPR’s International Correspondent Ari Shapiro, who has a long-term association with Pink Martini sings the response. Shapiro, handsome in his glitzy jacket, sang with lots of attitude, showmanship, and great articulation.
Shapiro then sang “Yo Te Quiero Siempre” (I will always love you), also by Ernesto Lecuona. Performed with pathos but yet a light touch, the text is, “I know you don’t love me … you never loved me … even though I know you don’t love me, deceive me again.”
The 21-song program finished with Forbes and Shapiro uniting for “Get Happy/Happy Days are Here Again,” made famous by the Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand 1963 duet.
Of course, it’s not truly a Pink Martini show without the encore of “Brasil”. Lauderdale loves audience participation with lots of opportunities for clapping, finger snapping, and even dancing. He lamented the fact that few people heeded his call at the end of the first set. The Kennedy Center crowd certainly found its collective courage with hundreds rising to conga to the big sounds of the Xavier Cugat number.
Pink Martini is a band who deliver high-quality, entertaining performances with exuberance and wit. The he Kennedy Center setting seemed to be bring a more restrained show than what you might find elsewhere, when you add in the NSO Pops, The von Trapps, and Ari Shapiro, you have a night that should not be missed.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Pink Martini & The von Trapps together with the NSO Pops plays through Saturday, September 13, 2014, at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.
Pink Martini website.