If you ask Google for lyrics to Pink Martini's breakout hit "Sympathique," you'll find that the song you thought was written by the Portland-based dance orchestra was actually first performed by that little songbird, Edith Piaf. Misinformation, naturally; the band's music director, Thomas Lauderdale, said Monday night during his group's show with the ISO that it was the first song he wrote with the band's chanteuse China Forbes, and that they were successfully sued for lifting verses from Guillaume Apollinaire for its chorus.
But the misattribution is also a measure of the group's ability to not just learn the rudiments of a certain style (French chanson, Brazilian jazz, Latin music by way of American movie musicals), but to recreate that style with a certain je ne sais quoi, which we might describe, were we to try to name it, as a sophisticated, graceful, laid-back approach that's characterized by Lauderdale's demonstrative, not-quite-florid but arpeggio-heavy take to the piano, Forbes's versatile, flawless alto voice and a backing band that, generally, knows its stuff.
And the group gets it right when it comes to the lyrics as well — Forbes joked on-stage that when she and Lauderdale write in French, they become an old, wistful Frenchwoman looking back on the loves of her life, a figure not unlike Piaf really. Which is all to say that originals and covers play nicely together in Pink Martini's repertoire, and those unfamiliar (to this listener) tunes excavated from musicals ("Amado Mio" from a Rita Hayworth feature; "Tempo Perdido," first sung by Carmen Miranda) fit in just fine beside originals like "Sympatique" and "Autrefois" that were written in the style of.
Pink Martini is credited as a 12-piece in the program's bio, but it slimmed down to ten members Monday night (vocals, piano, violin, guitar, upright bass, trumpet, set, 3 misc. percussionists), with the trombonist, harpist and cellist identified on the group's website being left at home. When allowed to solo, the group impressed, particularly guitarist Dan Faehnle and trumpeter Gavin Bondy, who certainly knows how to work a plunger. The ISO added lushness to the mix, often doubling the band's parts, but sometimes given more to do (a soli for the horn section here, a striking delayed entrance during a song's bridge there).
Forbes seems quite the linguist; while I couldn't say if her Chinese was on target (and she admitted it wasn't at one point, when she made up some nonsense Mandarin for a Chinese New Year song to which she had momentarily forgotten the words), she tried on Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Turkish with equal ease. And at least one number in English demonstrated the band's humor — "Hey Eugene!," which chronicles a night spent with a certain Eugene and his passed-out skinhead friend.
Lauderdale was born near North Manchester, and invited anyone from the town to the stage for the closer "Brazil," including his first piano teacher, who sat by him on the bench during the number. It was a bit crowded on stage, of course, but Pink Martini was formed as a sophisticated party band, so it seemed to appropriate to end the night with plenty of audience participation.
The ISO opened the evening without the special guest, offering up a pops selection that proved to be almost inimical in spirit to what followed, that is, a selection of comfort food ranging from the boring and generic (the medley of Holiday songs, "A Thanksgiving Overture"), to the professionally well-played but well-trodden (selections from Carmen and The Nutcracker), to the overly-dense and exoticized (an arrangement of the Miami Sound Machine's "Conga" seemingly written for an exceptional high school concert band).