- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The sun set slowly at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap on Monday evening, as Pink Martini, the art-pop ensemble from Portland, Ore., appeared on this outdoor stage for the first time.

The crowd on the lawn looked as if PBS might be holding its annual picnic, as hip middle-agers hoisted wine bottles and plastic cups. From the stage came the sound of an unexpected and delightful crossing of those two public entertainment staples: Great Performances and Music from Around the World.

Pink Martini has been called a “little orchestra” and is not shy about featuring soloists. As many languages were spoken as styles were employed, from Latin jazz to American show tunes to Spanish guitar to Cuban modern classical and delicate, poppish Burt Bacharach arrangements.

Typical was the salsa-like “Anna (el negro zumbon),” taken from the 1951 Italian film “Anna,” the story of a nun who is confronted by her saucy past as a debauched nightclub dancer. Here, singer-percussionist Timothy Nishimoto helped with vocal duties and scooted out a little two-step. After three songs, the musicians removed their jackets, it being a sweaty evening at Wolf Trap and presumably much hotter on stage.

Learning the origins of the songs, which band founder and artistic director Thomas Lauderdale takes pains to describe, is about more than enjoying a few program notes. It’s about transcending the barriers of language and taking in the air of sexy old movies and the pleasures of being an adult. On their first album, “Sympathique,” the band recorded a cover of “Que Sera Sera” — and not to make fun of it.

Pink Martini’s full band of 15 players boast two violinists, a cellist, an upright bassist, and a guitar — and that’s just the string section. Key to the momentum of its many dance songs, the three-man rhythm section relies heavily on congas. Trumpeter Gavin Bondy and trombonist Robert Taylor added many a beautiful accent, touching up the sound a la Mr. Bacharach.

Lead singer China Forbes’ sense of the moment serves her well on stage, as she seems to understand the importance of meaning what one sings. Her understated lyric-readings saved more than one Broadway-style showstopper from scenery-chewing excess. And it doesn’t hurt that she is built like a figure-eight racetrack.

The brain behind the band, Mr. Lauderdale, an outspoken David Byrne-Putumayo-style xenophile, was restrained at the microphone, even as he recognized a band member’s relative who works at the World Bank. Unable to help himself, he asked, “That’s a good thing, right?”

The music, fortunately, remained the star of the show, especially as the band performed back-to-back “Hang on Little Tomato” and the Italian-language “Una Notte a Napoli.” The former was inspired by an old Heinz ketchup ad telling a little tomato to stay on the vine and grow ripe so that one day it might be pressed into service on some “smart” hamburger.

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