Anchorage and Kodiak, Bucharest and Budapest, Zabrze and Berlin — the fall concert schedule of “little orchestra” Pink Martini reads like a world traveler’s fantasy itinerary.
Having performed on every continent except Antarctica over the past 20 years, the 12-piece ensemble will appear on Juneau’s Centennial Hall stage Sunday, hosted by Juneau Jazz & Classics.
Audience members will be taken on an around-the-world tour of a different kind during Sunday’s show; the band’s repertoire includes songs in more than a dozen languages including Turkish, Arabic, Portuguese, Greek and Japanese, sung by lead singers China Forbes and Storm Large, who collaborate with native speakers to learn the lyrics.
Back in 1994, when band leader Thomas Lauderdale pulled the first iteration of Pink Martini together in Portland, Oregon, such cosmopolitan dreams were as distant as Romania’s capital city. Though a classical pianist, Lauderdale was at that point more involved in politics than in the performing arts; he formed the group to provide more inclusive and interesting entertainment for the fundraising events he frequently attended. For the first few years, the band didn’t play beyond the Oregon border.
International recognition came “out of left field” following the release of the song “Sympathique (Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler),” the first collaboration between Lauderdale and Forbes, former classmates at Harvard. Sung in French by Forbes, “Sympathique” caught the ears of the French in 1997, eventually garnering Song of the Year and Best New Artist nominations in France’s Victoires de la Musique Awards.
“We were totally surprised,” Lauderdale said of the song’s success during a phone interview this week. “If we had had any expectations for it whatsoever it never would have worked. … I guess without (that song) we probably wouldn’t be here today. It just caught on, and suddenly we had a career in Europe before we had one in the United States.”
Pink Martini’s popularity at home wasn’t far behind, boosted by its collaborations with symphony orchestras across the Pacific Northwest beginning in 1998, and by supportive radio stations including NPR. They’ve since played with more than 50 orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Pops and the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center.
Though his band’s fame might not have been in Lauderdale’s plans, other aspects of Pink Martini have remained constant from the beginning. One is the eclectic nature of the music, an unusual combination of genres (classical, jazz and old-fashioned pop) and influences (tango, salsa, cabaret and swing).
Another constant is Lauderdale’s underlying interest in bringing people together, reflected in the band’s size, diverse audience and focus on collaboration. The band’s eight studio albums feature a range of interesting guest performers, such as Japanese pop star Saori Yuki, and more recently the great-grandchildren of Baron and Maria von Trapp from “The Sound of Music.”
“(We’ve been) able to work with people who are our heroes, whether its the MGM actress Jane Powell, or Carol Channing, Rufus Wainwright, or, recently, the von Trapps, or Rita Moreno, who was with us a couple weeks ago,” Lauderdale said. “That’s just great fun.”
The band also stays true to its roots in its support of causes members feel are important, such as affordable housing, libraries and music education in public schools.
“I feel like we definitely have a opportunity to give voice to causes we believe in,” Lauderdale said, adding that he is still personally interested in politics.
However, it’s unlikely he’s going to leave music for the political arena any time soon.
“It’s a tempestuous world right now, any number of things could happen…” he said. “I think it’s probably safer just to travel the world and make people happy (with music).”
Pink Martini is one of the bigger acts to come through Juneau in recent years. Juneau Jazz & Classics’ artistic director Linda Rosenthal said she’s been trying to get the band to town for years, partially in response to repeated requests written on audience comment cards at Juneau Jazz & Classics events.
“People have great suggestions,” she said. “Pink Martini, they are basically out of reach financially, but like with Taj Mahal or Arlo Guthrie, when they’re doing a statewide tour, I jump on board. I’ve been writing to them saying ‘When are you coming?’”
Pink Martini previously played a sold-out show in Anchorage in 2012 but this is the band’s first time in Juneau.
Pink Martini will perform at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 20 at Centennial Hall. The concert is a benefit for the upcoming 30th annual Juneau Jazz & Classics Festival from May 6-21. Ticket prices are $45 for general admission and $35 for students. Alcoholic beverages will be available for purchase to guests 21 and older.
Find out more by visiting Juneau Jazz & Classics at jazzandclassics.org/