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Summer Fun: San Francisco Symphony stirs in Pink Martini, Pixar, ABBA, and more

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I understand that conductor Edwin Outwater, who directs San Francisco Symphony’s summer concerts, went to college with Thomas Lauderdale, who founded and leads the one-of-a-kind group Pink Martini. That relationship is probably why Pink Martini first performed with SF Symphony, several summers ago. They make incredible music together—so damn entertaining, you’ll see people dancing in the aisles of Davies Symphony Hallthe reason Pink Martini keeps getting invited back.

I’m not a fan of the Boston Pops approach to music, but this isn’t that. Performing on piano, trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, bass, guitar, harp, English horn, and percussion, Pink Martini’s musicians are stellar performers all, and the arrangements of its lively, genre-crossing songs are both sophisticated and crowd-pleasing. SF Symphony neither overwhelms “the little orchestra” nor simplifies or fluffs up its own work. It just gets down with the Pink Martini sound and embellishes it.

This is the perfect band for people who love all kinds of music. It’s possible even Lauderdale can’t keep track of all the different songs this cosmopolitan band has performed on its eight CDs and in concerts from the Royal Albert Hall to the Cannes Film Festival. When the group’s longtime lead singer, China Forbes, had to give her vocal chords an immediate break a couple of years ago, her replacement (now co-singer), the glamorous Storm Large, had to learn ten songs in five languages in four days. (“Fortunately, it was not a big deal,” Large told us. “It was only for the Kennedy Center.”)

Pink Martini performs way off the beaten path songs in Farsi, Turkish, Romanian, Japanese, Spanish, German—and that was just on the evening I saw them. Esoteric as that sounds, the songs often have a foot in pop culture: one that Dinah Shore sang in Farsi (sorry, I missed the name) on her TV show in 1965, celebrating the United Nations with her guest Harry Belafonte; “Üsküdar’a Gider İken,” a Turkish folk song recorded by Eartha Kitt; “Ich dich liebe,” a tune sung by Mamie van Doren, an American “blonde bombshell” of the 1950s and ’60s, in a 1960s German spaghetti western called Freddy und das Lied der Prarie (Freddy and the Song of the Prairie).

Van Doren even performed with Pink Martini a few years ago, one of their many unexpected guests in concerts and on CDs. The guest performers in San Francisco were the von Trapps—yes, four young great-grandchildren of the Captain and Maria—whose contributions ranged from “The Lonely Goatherd” to “Dream a Little Dream,” the title song of Pink Martini’s latest CD.

Getting us in the mood for the show-closing “Brazil,” a song that would get any audience dancing, was “Fernando,” from the Swedish band ABBA—which makes an excellent segue to Arrival, a UK-based ABBA tribute band that will join SF Symphony onstage later this month. First, though, come two movie-related concerts: music from all 14 Pixar films and a sing-along version of Grease. After ABBA, actor-singer Cheyenne Jackson and rocker Melissa Etheridge will perform with the summertime symphony. Roll over, Beethoven? Maybe, but I prefer to think he might appreciate the change, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

July 17-20 (matinee), Pixar in Concert; July 20 (evening), Grease Sing-Along; July 22, Arrival: the Music of ABBA; July 24-25, Hello, Gorgeous! Cheyenne Jackson Goes to the Movies; July 30-31, Melissa Etheridge, Davies Symphony Hall, Grove St. between Van Ness and Franklin, S.F., 415.864.6000, sfsymphony.org.

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