With a Twist of Orchestra: Pink Martini and the NSO Pops at the Kennedy Center, April 14, 2011

Pink Martini put on a good show Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The group was without regular lead vocalist China Forbes, whose doctor had advised her not to further strain damaged vocal chords by performing, and some ragged episodes resulted. But Storm Large (yes, that is a performer’s name and not a Weather Channel alert) subbed in with an imperious diva approach, a big, powerful voice, and total commitment to every song she sang. That went well with the showy sound leader/pianist Thomas Lauderdale and the rest the band adopted for its ritzy surroundings; swinging hard from a solid rhythmic base, songs in Croatian, French, Spanish, and even our native tongue were tough to resist.

Somewhere behind the band sat the National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of next season’s NSO Pops principal conductor Steven Reineke, playing at near-constant volume to accommodate their guests’ amplification, providing a certain sweep to a sound that did not actually need it. That’s the thing about pops concerts: They take place in halls mostly devoted to classical music, and they involve musicians who mostly play classical music, but they treat the orchestra as anonymous color, not as an equal partner.

The Pink Martini show actually involved more classical music than most such concerts do. It began with a samba take on Ravel’s “Bolero,” mostly led by the band but expanded usefully with the NSO’s strings and brass, and the song “Splendor in the Grass” had a long interlude of the main theme from Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, played by the NSO brass, standing up and spotlit for once. (Lauderdale praised the NSO and Reineke lavishly throughout.)

Most notably, Lauderdale teamed with guest pianist Grace Fong to play a lengthy excerpt from Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor for two pianos, before segueing into two songs based on the Fantasy’s principal theme: a Latinified excoriation of an inconstant man, “And Then You’re Gone,” sung with the intense offense that seems comes naturally to Storm Large (using only one of those names seems to miss something), followed by the guy’s brassy perspective, “But Now I’m Back.”

This last was sung by Ari Shapiro, who may be familiar as National Public Radio’s White House correspondent, and who has a lovely voice but uses it a bit blandly for my tastes (at least when singing). NPR’s Scott Simon also made a stage appearance, dragged out of the crowd to intone Turkish phrases during another song, which he proved unwilling to do, although he enjoyed the stage. These two features showed the band’s interest in what I think of as “federal Washington,” along with frequent nods to budget work and Congress that eventually culminated in Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland, Ore, same as the band) and his staff appearing on stage for the grand finale, Blumenauer gamely shaking his maracas. I depend on federal Washington for a living, and I realize the band’s aesthetic is rooted in the 40s and 50s, but it would have warmed my heart to hear a go-go rhythm tapped out on their well-used conga set as well, although I was likely the only person in the audience to think of that.

A while ago, Anne Midgette asked whether pops concerts are a resource for developing new audiences or presentng different kinds of concerts. Concerts like Thursday’s are not going to do that; the NSO got love, but very little chance to show what it, and the music it plays, can really do. It would be fun if there were an occasional pops concert devoted entirely to ear candy like Borodin’s Overture and Polovtsian Dances (when was the last time you saw that on an orchestra program?), and that might develop an audience for the harder stuff.  But when the NSO plays in a show like this, all it does is show Pink Martini’s audience a group that’s really good at playing second fiddle. That’s still a fun night out with a good band, just not the one whose name is at the top of the Playbill.

Note: I apologize for how late this review is. I ended up having a root canal yesterday.

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