ORCHESTRA BRINGS UNIQUE MUSICAL TASTE TO LAS VEGAS GALA
Thomas Lauderdale never intended to become a professional musician. A classically trained pianist, he opted for politics — until he discovered that he needed a better musical backdrop for the fundraisers he organized for worthy causes.
The eclectic ensemble Lauderdale founded in 1994, the 12-member “little orchestra” known as Pink Martini, still plays benefits, including the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s March 3 gala at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.
The Philharmonic’s 19th annual gala has a new format this year, with Pink Martini’s 8 p.m. concert (with tickets priced from $30 to $109) preceded by a 5 p.m. Speakeasy bash boasting bootleg cocktails, small-plate delicacies, silent and live auctions and more. (“Phil-nom-e-nal” gala tickets range from $600 per person to sponsorships from $5,000 to $50,000; visit lvphil.org for details.)
For more than two decades, the Portland, Oregon-based Pink Martini has developed a cult following, thanks to an intoxicating mix of musical styles — performed in more than a dozen languages.
The ensemble made its Smith Center debut in February 2016. That concert climaxed in classic Pink Martini tradition: with a conga line that found performers and patrons exuberantly one-two-three-kicking down the aisles of Reynolds Hall.
Because Pink Martini already was scheduled to return during the Philharmonic’s current season — close to the date of the annual gala — the ensemble proved an ideal fit for the event, according to Michele Madole, the Philharmonic’s vice president of marketing and public relations.
Select Philharmonic members and winners of the orchestra’s concerto competition for young musicians will perform alongside Pink Martini.
And though Lauderdale likes “the impulsiveness of a live show” featuring only Pink Martini members, having symphony musicians playing strings, brass and woodwinds proves “even more dynamic for an audience,” he explains. Whether the music’s Cuban or Brazilian, the orchestral additions provide “a classical backbone to the band.”
The augmented sound is “so big and dramatic,” observes vocalist and songwriter China Forbes, who notes that the orchestral backing enables her to perform a wider range of material, including the “Song of the Moon” aria from Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka,” one of diva Renee Fleming’s musical signatures.
“I secretly want to be an opera singer in another life,” quips Forbes, who began her vocal career as “an 8-year-old Donna Summer imitator,” then added the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Suzanne Vega to previous R&B influences.
During her years at Harvard University, Forbes forged a friendship with classmate Lauderdale, who — despite his classical music background — was “totally political,” he says. “I really kind of ditched music,” except when he would “break into one of the practice rooms in the middle of the night to keep the piano skills going.”
Or during Tuesday night suppers, when Lauderdale joined in “musical theater productions in the dorm,” Forbes recalls.
After graduation, Lauderdale returned to his Portland hometown and Forbes headed to New York City to be a singer-songwriter — until Lauderdale called his old college pal and asked her to join Pink Martini.
At the time, it represented “a total about-face” from Forbes’ music, she admits. Now, “it’s a style that suits me best,” thanks to a repertoire that runs from “classical to pop to everything old-fashioned.”
Also in the mix: original songs, including Lauderdale and Forbes’ initial collaboration, “Sympathique.” Complete with French lyrics, it became the title track for Pink Martini’s debut recording — and an instant hit in France, which led to European tours, followed by engagements with U.S. orchestras “that helped build our fan base in America,” Forbes says.
Pink Martini made its Las Vegas debut at Bellagio’s 1998 opening — because then-owner Steve Wynn’s then-wife, Elaine Wynn, “was a big fan of the band,” Lauderdale says.
“In the old days, when the band first started,” their favorite Las Vegas destination was the now-shuttered Liberace Museum, he adds. “When it closed, there was no real reason to go back to Las Vegas.”
Yet they returned in February 2016 to perform with the Philharmonic — and singer Storm Large, who joined Pink Martini in 2011, after Forbes developed vocal problems that required surgery.
“For years, I felt incredible pressure to never miss a show — until I had to,” Forbes admits. Although “it’s unusual to have a changing lead singer,” the arrangement enables her to have “time off with my son and not tour so much.”
Regardless of who’s handling lead vocal duties, Pink Martini maintains its tradition of “going the opposite direction of most popular culture,” Lauderdale says.
“I love beautiful melodies and the old-fashioned approach to songwriting,” he says, citing vintage tunes that “are personal, yet they resonate for everyone.”
And while Las Vegas isn’t what it was — especially not without the Liberace Museum — “doing a run (of shows) in a place like Las Vegas” has definite appeal for Pink Martini, Lauderdale acknowledges, “an ongoing variety show, like Donny and Marie, but more classical.”
While “I don’t know how it would get started,” he says, “it would be great. Maybe on the Strip, maybe not on the Strip.”
For now, however, there’s March 3 at The Smith Center. And there will be conga-ing.
At least Forbes hopes so.
“It’s a nice punctuation,” she says. “Having fun and dancing by.”