in performance: pink martini with the university of kentucky symphony orchestra

Pink Martini. Back row, standing from left: Martin Zarzar (drums & percussion), Pansy Chang (cello), Timothy Nishimoto (vocals and percussion), Robert Taylor (trombone), Nicholas Crosa (violin), Gavin Bondy (trumpet), Phil Baker (upright bass), Derek Rieth (sitting on stool; bongos & percussion). Front row on sofa:: Thomas M. Lauderdale (piano), Storm Large (vocals), Brian Davis (percussion). Photo by James Chiang.

If you have ever felt deflated by the stylistic uniformity of most orchestral pops programs, then last night’s jet-setting, global-reaching and deliciously cosmopolitan meeting between Pink Martini and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra must have seemed like an early holiday gift.

This was far from the usual pops presentation of drab contemporary music draped with orchestral designs that seldom wander past perfunctory string arrangements. Instead pianist Thomas M. Lauderdale and the dozen-strong Portland, Ore. PM lineup offered a repertoire that embraced Afro-Cuban rhythms, swing, pop from the eras of Judy Garland and Doris Day and lyrical accents from France, Mexico, Brazil and Croatia.

Opening with an appropriately cinematic rendering of Ravel’s Bolero, PM emphasized light layers of tropical groove from a quartet of percussionists that would generously color the entire performance.

The concert didn’t always make the pop stops in paradise seem obvious, though. The Croatian-based U Plavu Zoru (At Blue Dawn) was instigated by very wintry (but altogether lovely) exchanges between PM cellist Pansy Chang and UK harpist Elaine Cook before vocals and brass fully let the light in.

Similarly, a stately, seasonally assured take on theVerdi-based La Vergine Degli Angeli prefaced what guest PM vocalist Storm Large termed as “the Material Girl of Christmas tunes,” the ‘50s-era pop nugget Santa Baby.

But for the most part, the performance reflected a winter wonderland with an eye out for sunshine. And when the full orchestral might of the UK Symphony came to bear on the music, as when Large kicked into the playful mambo-pop of the PM original And Then You’re Gone, the resulting radiance was pretty potent.

National Public Radio news correspondent Ari Shapiro, a fellow Portland-er, exhibited surprisingly strong vocal chops during the Cuban/Mexicali charm of Yo Te Quiero Siempre. But he impressed even more in his ability to fit in with PM’s versed pop playfulness, as exhibited during his mash-up with Large of Get Happy and Happy Days are Here Again.

Large had the last laugh on everyone, though, by leading the full orchestral charge through a vamp-ish Brazil that sent assorted (albeit prompted) conga lines throughout the concert hall.  It was one final blast of tropical wonder before the audience was sent back out into the cold of a very real winter evening.

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