The Farmer, the Cowman, the Mayor and the Band Leader
Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale on just about everything
by Suzi Steffen
When Thomas Lauderdale, pianist and founder of Portland’s now world-famous “little orchestra,” Pink Martini, calls, he and the group have just flown back into the fair large city to the north from Texas, where they performed in Austin the night before.
They’ve got a packed schedule this summer, including concerts in countries like Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Germany, Luxembourg, Romania, etc. If it’s Tuesday, they must be in Hungary.
But if it’s Saturday, June 26, they must be at the Hult Center, their voices and instruments charming the audience in Silva Concert Hall. The group (which Lauderdale calls “my band”) hasn’t been to Eugene since 2007, and it’s a treat to have them at the Bach Festival.
Wait a second: Pink Martini at the Bach Festival? We asked Lauderdale all of that and more. And not much of it was about Pink Martini’s recent work, but if you haven’t bought Splendor in the Grass, you’ll probably want to snap it up (read a detailed interview with Lauderdale about the music and the CD on the LAist site: http://wkly.ws/m8). Here’s Thomas Lauderdale, history and literature major, founder of Pink Martini, talking about everything from the Bach Double Violin Concerto to Neil Goldschmidt to Rogers and Hammerstein.
So: Pink Martini’s coming the the Oregon Bach Festival! The Oregon Bach Festival?
Well, the band certainly has a big relationship with classical music. Several of our members are classically trained. And we’re bringing Jun Iwasaki, the concertmaster of Oregon Symphony, and his wife, classically trained pianist Grace Fong. We’ll probably do the Bach Double [Violin Concerto] on this program.
We don’t really have Bach in our repertoire, and even the classical stuff we’ve played is generally not the original version. For instance, Ravel’s Bolero, set to an Afro-Cuban rhythm. It veers a bit, but if we can pull it together, we might pull off some Bach.
The festival itself, in its 40th year, it’s this sort of gem in the U.S. More Oregonians should know about it. I think part of our presence maybe can help spread the Bach Festival awareness to a crowd that might not normally pay attention, which I think is good.
We do work with orchestras across the country.
But it’s a bit unnerving. I’m always a bit nervous that I’m inching my way toward Liberace-land every day, which is antithetical to this high-quality musical experience [of the OBF].
Looks like you won’t have a spare second in Eugene, but let’s say you did. What’s your favorite thing to do in Eugene?
In years past, I always went to the used bookstores and the farmers’ market. We’ve worked with the Eugene Ballet and the Eugene Symphony a couple of times.
Eugene is amazing because there was a huge gay rights amendment, one of the first in the country, so it’s progressive. The UO campus is beautiful, and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, where there’s a Warhol [exhibit] right now.
You’re very involved in the community in Portland. Do you think that’s an Oregon trait?
I think that should be part of anybody’s [goal], whenever somebody’s doing well. For me, it’s definitely an obligation. It makes sense to champion the things that one believes in, support the causes or the movements that one believes in or thinks will always be around. Without that support, anything can tumble and fall. Even with a 40-year history, the caliber of musicians that the Bach Festival has, it should never be taken for granted. The Oregon Ballet Theatre almost went under last year, so I think it’s really important to support the things that one hopes to see.
It’s a challenging time, a really challenging time for classical music in the U.S. There are basically two populations left in this country that still have the discipline to study classical music: Asian Americans and fundamentalist Christians. They’ve got a certain amount of discipline that’s not to be found anywhere else in the culture. Everybody’s watching American Idol, thinking that’s how it’s done. What would be more interesting, more accurate, would be to have a show which shows the years of hard work, practicing for multiple hours a day, and maybe still not getting anywhere. That’s a more accurate representation of what it means to be attempting to make art in this culture. It’s an uphill climb. My band has been very very fortunate to have an incredibly fun career, a successful one, and I don’t take it lightly.
Do you still want to be mayor of Portland someday?[Lauderdale laughs for a bit.] I think I can make more money having a band. It’s more fun and maybe more glamorous to be playing in Lebanon, Turkey, Korea, the Hollywood Bowl. It’s more immediately gratifying; you get applause night after night. At the same time, I love my hometown of Portland and am always deep in thought about how to make it better and what I might do differently than the current administration.
I had lunch a couple of weeks ago with Neil Goldschmidt, the former governor. He’s the smartest man in the state; he is so inspiring and has so many ideas. The fact that people aren’t consulting with him still is a travesty. The question should be: What’s going to make the city better? What’s going to make the state better? I think he’s asking that question, and I don’t know that other people really are. I’m not convinced that they are.
We all do bad things, things that are unacceptable. We all make billions of mistakes from moment to moment. If anyone was to sit down and listen to what Neil Goldschmidt’s ideas are, they would be convinced. But as [former governor and gubernatorial candidate] John Kitzhaber said, sometimes Oregon’s an ungovernable state. It’s like we’re still fighting the Civil War. You’ve got Portland, Eugene and maybe Ashland, and then the rest of the state [on another side].
One of the most interesting thing the band has worked on was the musical Oregon! Oregon! for the 150th anniversary of the state. We wrote a new act and ran around with the 234th Army Band, and Governor [Barbara] Roberts played the governor. I loved those projects which bring together disparate opinions. It was a hell of a lot of fun for Pink Martini and I think for the 234th Army Band.
I love working with people who don’t agree with me. It’s no fun to be surrounded by just liberals, because liberal people just aren’t that fun. I have way liberal politics, but in a state like this, there has to be some reasonable discussion and some conciliatory diplomacy along the way. It’s like that clssic song in Oklahoma!: “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.” Rogers and Hammerstein, sometimes they got it so right.