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Pink Ambition

Lauderdale and his Martini team crash the Oregon Symphony

The mercurial Thomas Lauderdale has his stars in alignment, even if his universe seems slightly askew.

This weekend, Lauderdale and his band of jet-setting sophisticates, Pink Martini, rub shoulders with the Oregon Symphony for a concert that is equal parts euphoria and introspection.

Five new songs from Pink Martini's coming album Ñ the working title is 'The Floating World' Ñ will be played at the concert. Set for release in approximately four months (knock wood), the new album follows four years after 'Sympathique,' Pink Martini's celebrated debut release and one of the best-selling local albums of all time. That album is firmly etched in the hearts and minds of Portlanders, and fans are ready for some new material.

Pink Martini has been touring the country recently, playing with such metropolitan orchestras as the Nashville Symphony, the Jacksonville Symphony and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Performances are planned in Vancouver, B.C., as well as with the Charlotte Symphony and the New Jersey Symphony.

For the Oregon Symphony concert, Pink Martini will be joined by the Jefferson High School Choir and the David York Ensemble. Three-quarters of the songs on the concert's program have been arranged for full orchestra.

Lauderdale, 31, first played with the Oregon Symphony at age 15 as the winner of the Corbett Competition, a statewide contest for high school musicians. That's when he met Associate Conductor Norman Leyden. They're now good friends, and Leyden, 84, will conduct this weekend's special concert and play clarinet on a few songs.

Music and clutter

Lauderdale and his big dog, Heinz, live in bohemian splendor in a downtown loft near the waterfront that also serves as the band's practice space. He parks his black-and-white Metropolitan minicar across the street and leaves the sweet smell of Djarum clove cigarettes everywhere he goes.

With his quizzical looks and blonde head constantly cocked to attention, Lauderdale consumes everything around him. He says he's worried about running out of time, and, indeed, it's hard to see how he could be much busier.

The detritus of his hurly-burly life Ñ books, sheet music, records Ñ wallpaper the room. A giant poster of 'La Dolce Vita' dominates one wall, black-and-white movie stills cascade across another, and campaign posters from past elections hang on a third. A film projector and a black Steinway piano sit to one side of the room.

'This concert,' Lauderdale explains between quick drags on his cigarette, 'should be a beautifully mixed group of songs that are related Ñ but are entirely different, so that you don't really know what's coming next.'

From the classical piece 'Prayer' by Oregon composer Ernest Bloch that opens the concert to the sublime beauty of 'New Amsterdam,' an ode to New York written by a homeless composer, it's a classic Pink Martini cocktail, blended with the band's trademark romance and optimism.

Two members of Pink Martini Ñ Robert Taylor (trombone) and Paloma Griffin Ñ are full-time symphony orchestra members. Griffin will play violin to accompany a reading by Lauderdale of Munro Leaf's 'Ferdinand the Bull,' about a bull who'd rather smell flowers than fight.

'Ultimately, I think each of us wants diversity in our lives,' Lauderdale says. 'The full spectrum of stuff. So we're bringing all these disparate things together. From elements of classical music, to Ravel's 'Bolero,' to songs sung in different languages, like 'Kikuchiyo' to 'Mohshimasu,' which is also one of the themes of the new album.'

Mysterious Moondog

Lauderdale uses the concept of the floating world to refer to what is perhaps the guiding principle for the new album.

'It's a Japanese concept called ukiyo-e that first appeared in Japanese art in 1868, and it had to do with urban cultures and the pursuit of pleasures,' he says. 'It came to mean the contemporary pleasures that there are amid life's greater suffering É Tiny moments of happiness. These jewels. And I think this is what the band can be at times, a moment of happiness.

'It's very celebratory, but it's also deep in thought,' Lauderdale says. 'It doesn't discount everything that's gone on in the last year.'

One example that appears on the album is the stunning 'New Amsterdam,' written by the composer known as Moondog and sung by the David York Ensemble.

Moondog, or Louis T. Hardin, was an extravagantly dressed (usually as a viking) blind man who lived and performed on the streets in New York City. From the late 1940s to the early '70s, he was a fixture on 54th Street and Avenue of the Americas. He later moved to Europe and enjoyed success as an avant-garde composer.

This is the kind of cult musical discovery that Lauderdale loves.

As the concert's conductor, Norman Leyden, said recently: 'You never know what Thomas is going to do next. That's what keeps people interested. He's always got some new project. Some new musical angle. It's always fun to see what he's up to.'

Roots, rain and rehearsal

At a recent concert rehearsal at Jefferson High School, the choir rehearses 'Oluwa' (Many Rains Ago) Ñ the African theme to 'Roots.' Pink Martini's starry-voiced singer, China Forbes, 31, selected this particular song for the concert. Forbes goes to the blackboard to write down the words 'Kole-ba-je-o' so the choir can enunciate the words just right.

'That's beautiful. That's so beautiful,' Lauderdale encourages the students as the after-school rehearsal winds down.

Later, as details emerge about transporting the students Ñ as many as 25 Ñ to the concert on time, Lauderdale informs concert manager Susan Nielsen that Pink Martini will provide the students' transportation downtown.

This elicits a giddy laugh from Nielsen, who's not sure the kids know what night the concert is scheduled. She knows it's important to stay loose when working with Lauderdale Ñ he charts his own path.

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