New Year’s Eve Bash with Pink Martini, Rita Moreno, Mariachi Band

By Truman C. Wang

It’s a pity that the hometown band L.A. Phil is never home during the holidays and its ever in-demand Music Director Gustavo Dudamel is globe-trotting in Vienna this week in preparation for the New Year’s concert at the Musicverein. 

The job of ringing in 2017 therefore fell into the capable hands of the Portland Ore. band Pink Martini, who was no stranger to the venue, having performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s grand opening in 2003 and many New Year’s Eves since.  The band’s founder and leader, Thomas Lauderdale, is a classically-trained pianist with a gimmick for showbiz.  He has this uncanny ability to arrange and rearrange old standards or classical music themes into pop hits, in much the same way as the Thomas from Season 3 of “Mozart in the Jungle” successfully rearranging his new classical composition with the help of a club DJ.  

Mr. Lauderdale’s showmanship was plenty evident in this New Year’s Eve concert.  From the opening numbers “Amado Mio” and “Dosvedanya Mio Bombino”, sung by the ever-brilliant-even- when-indisposed China Forbes, to the pair of songs inspired by Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor for Piano Four Hands, the whole song-and-dance routine seamlessly and organically connected various musical genres and artists so that there was never a dull moment in this two-hour-long concert.

Co-lead vocalist Storm Large and NPR host Ari Shapiro made an unlikely pair in “And Then You’re Gone” – Schubert transformed with African beat and swing – and its follow-up “But Now I’m Back”.  The original Schubert melody was poetic and meandering; the two songs that it inspired, on the other hand, were punchy, raunchy showstoppers. 

Most songs on the program were from past albums familiar to the Pink Martini fans in the audience, including “Hey Eugene!” and “Una Notte”.  But I had a feeling most people went to hear the guest vocalists and what a hit parade of talents that were assembled!  First, there was the ageless Rita Moreno (who just turned 85) giving her hot and sultry rendition of the Peggy Lee standard “Fever”.  Then, Chicago fashion retailer Ikram Goldman belted out a joyful Arabic song “Al Bint El Shalabiya”, full of mesmerizing melismas.   Percussionist Timothy Nishimoto joined Ari Shapiro and others in the Armenian song “Ov Sirun Sirun”.  Canter Ida Rae Cahana sang a lovely Yiddish song with scintillating piano accompaniment by Mr. Lauderdale.   Last but not least, the international theme continued with Rita Moreno reprising her Anita in the rousing “America” dance number from the 1961 film “West Side Story” – with contributions from Storm Large, China Forbes and the fabulous Aztlán de Pueblo High School mariachi band from Tucson, Arizona (who also got to perform their own dazzling solo number.)

And then there were the four great-grandchildren of Captain and Maria Von Trapp, making an unannounced appearance, singing in sweet harmony with pastoral English horn obbligato (played by Kyle Mustain) that transported the listeners to the meadows of the Swiss Alps.

What a great night of music-making to bring the world together through the power of art.  When the clock struck midnight and everyone burst into a spontaneous chorus of Auld Lang Syne, we were reminded of the words, “Should old acquaintance be forgot / And never brought to mind?”   The answer is clear.  We must treasure the oldies and our diverse cultures.  Only then will the world be a peaceful place to live in.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.