Are Americans afraid of classical music? Classical compositions seem threaded into the fabric of modern Europe. Yet Americans, by and large, seem to have an uneasy relationship the classics. They choose in overwhelming numbers to buy and be entertained by the progeny of what are generally recognized as the uniquely American musical forms: jazz, blues, country and rock. Too often, it seems, classical music -- Old World music -- is viewed as something for the Masterpiece Theatre set, something too highbrow for a nation teeming with the descendents of poor immigrants, something that's always being thrust upon us by the British or the Germans or the French. Not surprisingly, we fiercely independent (and often, disturbingly xenophobic) Americans tend to react to it as a petulant kid might react to the prospect of a mouthful of Brussels sprouts.
Well, one way to get us musical Neanderthals to the classical table is to pair Spokane's very own Symphony Orchestra with the sophisticated yet frisky sounds of Pink Martini, that Portland-based ensemble known throughout the world as a trans-cultural matchmaker responsible for bringing classical and pop lovers together under one tent for a holy -- and wholly entertaining -- union. The group performs with the Spokane Symphony this Saturday night at the Spokane Opera House.
Pink Martini's bandleader and co-founder Thomas Lauderdale certainly agrees that Europeans are more steeped in classical forms.
"In Europe, the orchestras are state-funded," he says from Oregon. "Everybody over there plays an instrument. The problem with classical music in this country is, not only is there no music education in the public schools to steer people in that direction, but it's cost-prohibitive. One can't really afford to go to a concert of a ballet because it's so damned expensive."
Nevertheless, he insists that Americans have the potential, at least, to be equally receptive to the classics and to what his own group is trying to accomplish.
"In Hollywood, there are a lot of really brilliant people actually writing stuff, but they expect that the American public is not going to be able to take it. I don't think that that's true at all. There's certainly a much more global outlook in Europe -- everybody speaks at least two languages, for example. But I think American audiences are just as curious. And anybody at this point in this culture who's willing to go out on the town to actively participate in the world -- there's something daring about that."
Pink Martini's popularity in the Pacific Northwest and around the globe has come as a result of the ensemble's willingness to expand the boundaries of pop with its potent international blend of Latin, jazz, chamber music, cabaret, Parisian cafe tunes and foreign film soundtracks. Though artistic, the group is also very approachable. And that audience connection works both ways. Lauderdale claims his favorite gigs are, in fact, those in the small, typically conservative and culture-starved communities of rural Oregon.
"There's something very down home playing in smaller, more conservative communities," he says. "And the band is very accessible. We're not elusive in terms of playing hide-and-seek with the audience. And as long as everybody treats each other intelligently, then everybody rises."
The 10-to-12-piece Pink Martini group fairly lurched into existence in 1994 as a ragged quartet thrown together for the rare opportunity to open for the all-femme, all-guitar Del Rubio Triplets at a Portland political function. Their dance card has remained full ever since. Pink Martini has toured the States (performing on its own and with major orchestras), throughout Europe (including France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Switzerland) and in Lebanon, Taiwan, Greece and Turkey. In addition to touring like mad and maintaining its position as Portland's resident taste-masters, the group busies itself with side projects and movie and television gigs. Pink Martini songs have turned up in films like Nurse Betty, Josie & amp; the Pussycats, Town & amp; Country and Tortilla Soup and in television shows such as The Sopranos, The West Wing, Third Watch, Felicity and Dead Like Me. They also recorded the George of the Jungle theme. Their only album to date, 1998's Sympathique (on Lauderdale's own Heinz Records), continues to sell big -- to the tune of 600,000 units and counting. Not bad for an independent release.
Lauderdale reports that a follow-up album to Sympathique, rumored to be "in the works" for some time, is finally on the way.
"Ostensibly it's finished," he says. "I've been working on this for three solid years, and it's been slow and tortuous because we've been writing most of the material for it and we want it to somehow live up to the first, which has been a huge challenge."
Once again the album (tentatively titled Hang On, Little Tomato) will be performed in many different languages. This time, the group collaborated with musicians from Croatia, Italy, Japan and Spain, making it potentially even more diverse than the first.
That very diversity that is what makes life -- and the sounds of Pink Martini -- worth enjoying in the first place, right? Now, if we could only get that through our often-thick American skulls.
"If you listen to European radio stations, it's much more broad," says Lauderdale. "You'll have a classical station right next to Afro-Cuban right next to jazz right next to Madonna. There's so much niche marketing in this culture, which really closes off a lot of options. Ultimately, I don't think that's what anybody really wants. I think each of us wants to go to dinner parties where each of us is different. It's no fun being surrounded by people who are precisely like oneself. We all do so much to fit into society, when at the same time it's our differences which make it all so fantastic."
Spokane Symphony musicians -- "One of the best symphonies we've played with," notes Lauderdale, "and certainly the nicest" -- along with Conductor Fabio Mechetti, are donating their services to make it all happen Saturday night. Proceeds from the concert will go to music education programs and musicians' salaries. For its part, Pink Martini will be doing what it does best, spreading its inclusive musical philosophy and bringing people together under the auspices of a classical, soulful, eminently swanky good time.