Call it Holiday Music Syndrome, or perhaps Holiday Music Assault: You're standing in line at a store, waiting for a beleaguered cashier to ring up the other customers, and the place that you're trying to pay won't stop pelting you with Christmas music. Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock" plays every 10 minutes, and hastily produced indie rock or superficially pretty acoustic covers of carols fill the space between spins. They hit like well-packed snowballs.
"I actually had to leave a store the other day because I couldn't stand the music they were playing," says Karen Strittmatter Galvin, violinist and assistant concertmaster for the North Carolina Symphony. "It was a pop cover of all these classic carols, but it was just so badly done that it was completely unlistenable."
Galvin laughs, but this weekend, she and the Symphony present a tonic for Holiday Music Syndrome. While it's not ladled from a punch bowl that a mischievous uncle has doused with liquor, it does have a boozy name: Pink Martini. The versatile Oregon ensemble arrives in Raleigh for three holiday sets with the N.C. Symphony, marking Pink Martini's third consecutive season with the Symphony since the release of their essential 2010 album, Joy to the World.
That album turned Christmas music upside down with a basic plan of near-infinite possibilities: Play the holiday classics in a totally new way. Slip in a few unfamiliar classics. And while you're at it, why not slip in a conga line?
"Most of our holiday material is unusual for people," Pink Martini pianist and founder Thomas Lauderdale explains. "Some pieces are so out there for so many people because they're so different from so many versions they've heard before."
Their take on "We Three Kings," for instance, aims to hypnotize with the Afrobeat thrum of Fela Kuti, spliced with bits from 19th century Czech composer Bedich Smetana. And they supplant the familiar patter of "Little Drummer Boy" with a quicker rhythm and congas.
"And then there's a really kick-ass version of 'Auld Lang Syne' with verses in French, English and Arabic," says Lauderdale. "Somehow changing the feeling of the rhythm, or even the language, makes something old new again."
Pink Martini is the party band of the symphonic set. In 1994, Lauderdale—then a political aspirant in Portland—founded his "little orchestra" to supercharge fundraisers and rallies. Within a few years, he'd added vocalist China Forbes (and, subsequently, Storm Large, who will appear in Raleigh) and expanded to about a dozen members. Symphonies came calling.
Since their big-stage debut with the Oregon Symphony in 1998, Pink Martini have presented their multi-genre, multicultural music in shows with more than 50 orchestras worldwide. They've worked with the majors, too, including the National Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops and BBC Concert Orchestra. Pink Martini even helped the Los Angeles Philharmonic open Frank Gehry's fanciful Walt Disney Concert Hall.
"Pink Martini has made it their business to not be put in a box. The number of languages they sing in alone is astounding, let alone the styles that they cover," says Galvin. "And it's not even just covering styles. They're doing it with a lot of care and really smart stylistic choices."
Their Afro-Cuban treatment of the Hanukkah song "Ocho Kandelikas" crashes Spanish into Hebrew. Inspired by the Lebanese singer Fairuz, their partly Arabic version of "Silent Night" echoes a muezzin's call to prayer. They'll circle the globe in a single tune.
"That's why their concerts are such a good fit with orchestras," Galvin says, "because that's exactly what orchestras do so beautifully. We're capable of performing any type of music—and we do, on a weekly basis. You put the chart in front of us and we play it."
As committed as Pink Martini's holiday set is, Lauderdale insists that he never intended to make a holiday album. He used to deride bands that did just that, at least until Starbucks offered to pay handsomely for Pink Martini to plunder the seasonal canon.
"That was an opportunity for us to think broadly about Christmas and about how to make it more inclusive," Lauderdale says. "We did everything from 'White Christmas' in Japanese for the first time—because Irving Berlin had forbidden it from being recorded in Japanese—to the original Ukrainian carol of the bells ['Shchedryk']."
While Pink Martini's vision of Christmas is rather ecumenical, Lauderdale's adventurousness is grounded in the same popular classic recordings that so many hear as children. Lauderdale, 44, grew up in rural Indiana on a plant nursery. His parents had a reel-to-reel machine and six key albums—Ray Conniff, Ray Charles, Roger Miller, The New Christy Minstrels, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar.
"The Christmas album I really grew up with was the Ray Conniff album," he remembers. "I could hardly wait for the first snow because that meant I could play the reel-to-reel of Ray Conniff Christmas. That was the first music that I really remember loving."
Lauderdale's nostalgic, too, for Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas set, the Carpenters' holiday collection and Barbra Streisand's A Christmas Album, which he describes vividly—"she's holding a box of light on the album cover and wearing a flowing dress like she did in Central Park in 1968."
While loving those classics, his more exploratory musical side wants to play new versions of those old songs. The same applies to symphonic instrumentalists who are downright ravenous for new holiday fare. As every orchestra member does at the end of every year, Galvin's been sawing away at Handel's Messiah for weeks on end. It's not unpleasant, but it's a work chore nonetheless, an annual task that you know is coming all year. This time, however, guest conductor Douglas Boyd brought a new approach to the N.C. Symphony.
"Instead of the entire orchestra playing this very bombastic thing that people have gotten used to, it was a very small orchestra and a very small choir," Galvin says. "We used Baroque techniques that made our instruments sound more like they would have sounded when Handel was alive—no vibrato, slightly different bowstrokes. This conductor convinced this orchestra, which has collectively played the Messiah 20,000 times I'm sure, to do it in such a new way."
Such musical rejuvenation is the credo of Pink Martini's holiday approach, too. Lauderdale's crew isn't just making bank on December fodder for department store dressing rooms. They intend to throw three parties onstage in Raleigh, upping the cheer of usual seasonal symphony sets.
"Oh yeah, absolutely we'll have a conga line," Lauderdale deadpans. "There are a couple of dance moments at the end of the first half of the show. With certain audiences, people are pretty demonstrative. Denver was crazy; there were multiple conga lines by the end of the whole night.
"We've been to Raleigh so many times," he continues. "I feel like they're really with us. It'll magically happen night after night."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hear what they hear"