Turning the Hall Pink

Classic Arts Features   Turning the Hall Pink

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

"... Practice. Or join Pink Martini."

As a teenager in Portland, Oregon, I used to frequent spots like La Luna and Berbati's Pan to watch my favorite local band play. Some of those clubs allowed people under 21 to attend concerts.

Sometimes I had to find more creative ways to get in. Pink Martini wasn't standard fare for the Pacific Northwest music scene in the 1990s. No plaid shirts, ripped jeans, or grunge rock. Instead, the band was outfitted in cocktail dresses and dapper suits. The music was epic, cinematic, orchestral, and multilingual. In the summers, my friends and I would picnic at the zoo and dance at the foot of the amphitheater stage while Pink Martini carried us to Havana, Paris, Rio, and Milan.

I never introduced myself to the band members. They were too glamorous, too cosmopolitan. One night at the dark, romantic, Brazen Bean coffee house, the bandleader with his shock of platinum hair sat at a baby grand piano, accompanying a curvy woman in an evening gown singing German lieder. I sat in the corner with my chocolate fondue, admiring from afar.

On a visit home from college, I walked into a local record store to discover that the band had released an album with a picture of the Eiffel Tower and roller skaters on the cover. Sympathique. Finally my friends could hear this music I always talked about! "Never on Sunday" in Greek, Ravel's "Bolero" through a Latin lens, and an eerie twist on Doris Day's classic "Que Sera, Sera." As I learned how to cook and threw dinner parties, that album became my constant soundtrack. I wore it out as Pink Martini won a broader audience through symphonic concerts and appearances in car commercials, movies, and television shows.

Years later, the band had not released a second album, and I wanted to know why. By this point, I was working as an editorial assistant on NPR's Morning Edition, with dreams of becoming a reporter.

I decided I would finally introduce myself to Pink Martini and introduce the band to a national audience. I would report a story on why it was taking so long for the band to release its second album.

But the problem was that the band's manager, John Brodie, thought the story was a terrible idea. "Why would I want you to tell the world that the band is stuck?" he asked. I didn't have a good answer. Undeterred, I called a friend who had recently met that platinum blond bandleader while taking Polaroids (PG-rated, of course) in the bathroom of the legendary Silverado in Portland. My friend pleaded my case directly to the man at the piano, Thomas Lauderdale. A few weeks later, I was on a plane back to Portland.

At Kung Fu Bakery Recording Studios, Thomas played me a Pink Martini remake of a Carmen Miranda number called "Tempo Perdido." "Do we need to slow it down?" he asked. My head spun.

That reporting trip launched a friendship with Thomas and the rest of Pink Martini. As I grew, so did the band. By this point, they were touring the country and the world. Every time they came to perform in Washington, DC, I would host them for brunch or dinner or a cocktail party on our patio. They were a breath of my hometown squeezed into my new life of politicians and partisanship.

A decade into our friendship, I threw a backyard barbecue for the band on the night before their DC show. Another Portland band, Blind Pilot, happened to be passing through Washington at the same time and joined the party. The cookout segued into a sing-along. We all crowded around the piano upstairs in my house: Pink Martini, Blind Pilot, my DC friends, and me: as Thomas led us through "Home on the Range," "The Gambler," and anything else we could think to sing together. It was one of the best nights I've had. People finally trickled home just before dawn.

The next morning, I sat bleary-eyed at my desk, popping aspirin and espresso. The sound of my office phone ringing was like a pickaxe between my eyes.

"Hello?" "Ari! It's Thomas!"

Thomas explained that the band had recorded a song for the new album, from the perspective of a jilted woman. It was called, "And Then You're Gone." They had a concept for a response song, from the man's perspective, called "But Now I'm Back." But they needed someone to sing it.

Would I be interested?

I said yes, believing deeply and with all of my heart that it would never happen: fantasies that big simply do not come true.

But a month later, I was back at Kung Fu Bakery, where I'd first met Thomas 10 years before. This time instead of sitting in the control room, I was in the vocal booth, singing a big-band swing number based on a Schubert melody. And the musicians of Pink Martini were backing me up. Still, I was sure the song would never see the light of day.

Until the album came out. With my name on the cover. And then Thomas called me again. "We need to find a time for you to perform this live! Can you come to the Hollywood Bowl with us?"

Photos of iconic Hollywood Bowl performances through the years lined the walls backstage. In my dressing room, a huge black-and-white image from the 1960s of Judy Garland gazed down on me. Judy Garland. On the same stage where I was about to sing with the band I'd idolized since childhood. I spent so much time pinching myself to see if it was real, my arms might have been black and blue.

In the days following that night, I was at peace with the fact that I would have to put this sparkling memory in a box somewhere to revisit any time I needed a pick-me-up. But Thomas wasn't ready to move on. "If you're going to keep performing with us, we'll have to find more songs for you to sing!"

That first show was three years ago. Since then, the reality has begun to sink in that this is not a dream I must awaken from. I've recorded more songs with them in Hebrew, Ladino, Spanish, and Hindi.

The band has given me the privilege of performing with them in Paris, Istanbul, Athens, London, and across the United States. On New Year's Eve, I had the entirely surreal experience of walking onto the stage with them in my hometown of Portland. And last year we joined the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in my adopted hometown of Washington, DC.

But even after all of that, I never could have conceived that I would share the stage with them at the legendary Carnegie Hall.

When I asked my supervisors at work for time off to do this show with Pink Martini and The New York Pops, I sent them an e-mail with the subject line: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

The body of the message said, "... Practice. Or join Pink Martini."

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