By Christina Wood
You won’t find many places where people of diverse opinions gather peacefully these days. Where young and old sit, amicably, side by side. Where people come together – regardless of labels or affiliations – to celebrate life. With Pink Martini and the Nu Deco Ensemble both performing, this year’s Festival of the Arts Boca might be an exception.
The festival, which opens tomorrow with a talk by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, has been serving up a smorgasbord of musical performances and speakers at Mizner Park since 2007, with headliners ranging from Joshua Bell, Renee Fleming and Pat Metheny to Edward Albee and Jeff Greene.
“We always want to try to bring the audience something new and exciting,” says Joanna Marie Kaye, director of the festival.
Drawing inspiration from an international hodgepodge of musical styles and a diverse assortment of musical genres, Thomas Lauderdale founded Pink Martini 25 years ago with the hope of improving on the kind of music usually played at events designed to raise money for libraries, public broadcasting, education, parks and other causes in his hometown of Portland, Ore.
That was in 1994, when people were tuning in to Friends on TV and going to the movie theater to see Forrest Gump.
“I think the band can best be used these days to bring together people,” Lauderdale says now. “These concerts are one of the few places where people who don’t agree politically end up dancing in the same conga line.”
Music, you see, can do what a government shutdown can’t.
“The songs are so gorgeous. They have beautiful melodies that are memorable. There’s an older sense of grace and beauty that is largely missing from modern culture. I think that all impacts people who come to see our shows,” Lauderdale says.
“We’re going the opposite direction of American pop culture,” he admits. “It’s sort of old-fashioned. There are no electronics other than the microphones. We have real instruments played by real people. The idea is to create a neighborly vibe that is very welcoming and lovely, where people go home feeling inspired and hopeful and uplifted.”
That approach has won the band a large and loyal fan base. And, with a repertoire that includes songs in 25 different languages, Pink Martini’s is nothing if not diverse. The band’s audiences usually represent a refreshing mix of ages, ethnicities and opinions.
You never know who you’ll see at a new Nu Deco Ensemble concert, either.
“We’ve been able to tap into a new audience and create a fan base that is very, very, very diverse and eclectic – kind of like the musicians on our stage,” says Sam Hyken, co-founder, artistic director and CEO of the Miami-based orchestra. “While our concerts may be a little bit louder and more boisterous than a typical orchestra concert, (the music) is for everybody.”
Like many youngsters (the ensemble played its first concert in 2016), Nu Deco is full of energy and enthusiasm for the future. Billed as “a virtuosic and eclectic chamber orchestra designed for the 21st century,” the group specializes in a genre-bending brand of classical music.
“We’ve seen amazing things happen with the orchestra and we’ve been able to connect such a diverse group of musicians, a diverse audience – all through music. It’s important because there aren’t that many cultural experiences for everybody, all together,” Hyken says. “What we’ve really discovered with Nu Deco is that the orchestra can be that place of ultimate community connection.”
Nu Deco and Pink Martini both excel at blurring the lines – between musical genres as well as social divides.
Hyken, who is responsible for a majority of Nu Deco’s arrangements, has created symphonic suites based on the music of Queen, Outkast and Daft Punk, which will be performed at the Festival of the Arts Boca concert on March 9.
“We really pride ourselves on valuing any of the music that we play, so even when we’re combining genres, we never look at it as a gimmick. It’s always true to the spirit of the music itself,” Hyken says.
Also on the program will be music by Henry Mancini and Nick Omiccioli, a rocker and metalhead with a composition degree, as well as “Refried Farandole” and an arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” by Hyken.
“We choose music that we feel the orchestra can really provide value to and bring something new to. We don’t just cover the music, so to speak; we try to explore it in different and unusual ways and use the orchestra to find different layers to it,” Hyken says.
Joachim Horsley, a composer, pianist and arranger who has created the scores for more than 50 film and television projects, will be the featured guest artist. Known for blending great works of classical music with Afro-Carribean rhythms, Horsley will perform Lecuona’s “Malaguena.”
“We’re really thinking on the broader question of what is new music and what is the orchestra, and how do we view the orchestra as a body and a vehicle for expression,” Hyken explains “We want to be a big part of the conversation on what it means to be an orchestra in this century.”
“Anyone who attends a Nu Deco concert will walk away with a completely different idea of what an orchestral concert can be,” Kaye says.
Many attempts have been made to categorize Pink Martini’s music. Some say it is a mash-up of classical, classic pop, Latin and jazz. Others call it an easy listening blend of jazz, pop, folk, world and country. Those with a more limited imagination or vocabulary have labeled it a mix of pop, rock and easy listening.
Lauderdale describes it best as, “a little bit of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ crossed with old-Hollywood symphonic pop, crossed with the United Nations.”
When the 12 members of the band take the stage at the Mizner Park Amphitheatre on Sunday, he says you can expect to hear songs in at least 10 different languages – everything from “Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler,” an original song in French the band put out in 1999. to “Amado Mio” from the 1946 film Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth.
Over the years, Pink Martini has seduced audiences around the world with its multilingual repertoire and distinctive style. They have played with more than 70 orchestras, from the Cleveland Orchestra to the BBC Concert Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall, and they’ve been seen on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and CBS Sunday Morning, among other television shows. They even recorded a nationally broadcast holiday special for NPR.
Artists ranging from Phyllis Diller and Carol Channing to DJ Johnny Dynell and the original cast of Sesame Street have collaborated with Pink Martini. Lauderdale is particularly proud of the band’s collaboration with Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in 1963. “She had studied classical piano as a young person with dreams of playing Carnegie Hall,” he says.
When Pink Martini had an opportunity to play Carnegie Hall, Lauderdale had one condition. “So, at age 79, she made her Carnegie Hall debut. That, to me, is the proudest moment in the band’s history.”
Hyken puts it in perspective. “Music is one of the greatest things in the world,” he says. “To be able to make a living at it is sublime.”
Festival of the Arts Boca opens tomorrow at Mizner Park in Boca Raton, and runs through March 10. Pink Martini can be seen at the Amphitheatre at 7 pm Sunday, and Nu Deco Ensemble takes the stage at 7:30 pm March 9. For more information and to buy tickets, visit festivalboca.org.