By Katharine Conrad
When it comes to entertaining, Thomas Lauderdale knows his stuff. The talented pianist made a name for himself at Harvard, not by playing piano (though he did plenty of that), but by appointing himself “cruise director” of his dorm. He planned group getaways for spring break, welcomed incoming freshmen by handing out Twinkies and flowers, and eagerly assisted the fashion-challenged. Sporting outrageous-yet-chic outfits, Lauderdale became legendary for his fabulous parties, glamorous theme bashes he organized to make up for what he felt was a distinct lack of glamour. A Lauderdale shindig was no typical college kegger – his parties are described as grand Gatsby-esque affairs: waltzes with live orchestras and ice sculptures, disco masquerades with giant pineapples on wheels, midnight swimming parties, and more. Pizza and beer were nixed in favor of more refined refreshments: strawberries and whipped cream, fresh squeezed orange juice, smoked salmon, and, for “chocoholiday” parties, mountains of chocolate.
It’s that same sort of glamour that Lauderdale brings to Pink Martini, the Portland-based “little orchestra” he founded in 1994. Pursuing an interest in politics at the time, he quickly became distracted by the so-called “entertainment” at the functions he attended, finding it “underwhelming, lackluster, loud, and un-neighborly.” Much like he did at Harvard, Lauderdale took it upon himself to add posh and polish to the city’s fundraiser soundtrack. His initial quartet quickly blossomed into a 12-piece ensemble, becoming successful enough that he was able to persuade Harvard classmate and vocalist China Forbes to join his cause. The two have been writing songs together ever since.
The heart of those songs is Lauderdale’s own sample-a-bit-of-everything style, asking, “What kind of band do I want to hear personally?” He compares the group’s repertoire to mixtapes of favorite songs, describing it as “sort of a big multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-style kind of project.” The result is an eclectic, even eccentric, collection that includes Abba’s “Fernando” sung in the original Swedish, an eerily nostalgic rendition of “Que Sera, Sera,” the vintage dreamy romance of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do,” and many, many original works. Forced to classify his music, Lauderdale says it’s “Hollywood musical crossed with global pop.”
For Pink Martini’s new album, Dream A Little Dream, Lauderdale reached out to collaborate with the von Trapps, the great-grandchildren of Capt. Georg and Maria von Trapp of The Sound of Music fame, and a talented ensemble in their own right. Lauderdale has mentored the group since they met two years ago in Portland, helping them broaden their repertoire to develop their own musical identity while staying true to their roots. In fact, the new album includes two songs from the famed film: the lighthearted “Lonely Goatherd” and, of course, the stirring “Edelweiss.” Frivolity and finesse: a true Lauderdale combination.