Longtime fans of Portland’s “little orchestra,” Pink Martini, have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the band: multilingual eclecticism/exoticism, delivered with a dash of campy wit and some serious jazz-classical music chops.
One thing they’re not known for is intricate four-part vocal harmonies. So “Storm” — the opening song on their 2014 CD, “Dream a Little Dream of Me” — came as a total surprise.
It’s a sublime a cappella piece, with some atmospheric thunder provided by timpani rolls, evoking the way tempestuous weather stirs something turbulent within us.
The songwriter was someone named August von Trapp. And the whole CD was credited as a collaboration between Pink Martini and The von Trapps.
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“The von Trapps?” you might ask. “Are we talking bona fide ‘Sound of Music’ von Trapps, singing in the 21st century?”
Yes, we are. They perform with China Forbes and Pink Martini at Benaroya Hall on Jan. 20 and 22. Give one listen to “Dream,” and you may think it’s a match made in musical heaven.
The von Trapps are the grandchildren of Werner von Trapp, one of the original Trapp Family Singers. August, the youngest, began touring the globe with his three sisters when he was 7.
Their repertoire was drawn from “The Sound of Music” and the Austrian folk songs performed by their grandparents’ generation. But when they met Pink Martini leader Thomas Lauderdale in 2011, they entered a whole new musical universe.
“I sort of flipped out,” Lauderdale said in a phone interview last week, “because I love ‘The Sound of Music’ and didn’t realize there was this new generation of von Trapps who were performing. … They were everything you hoped the von Trapps might be. They were home-schooled in Montana. They had this sort of idyllic childhood — incredible parents who were paying a lot of attention. They didn’t watch television growing up. … They had an unusual ability to concentrate.”
Following that meeting, the siblings’ mother called Lauderdale, saying how much they’d liked him and wondering if he had suggestions for tweaking their repertoire.
“I thought: ‘You know, ‘The Sound of Music’ is great,” Lauderdale recalls. “But they could actually do so much more.’ ”
They took up his offer to help them record an album. Both parties thought it would take two weeks, but they wound up working on it for more than a year.
The von Trapps were comfortable with everything Lauderdale threw at them, including a Latin-beat cover of ABBA’s “Fernando” in the original Swedish. But the revelation was teenage August’s gift for songwriting.
The first was “Friend,” a lovely forlorn tune sung by August to the light accompaniment of a ukulele, celeste and plucked piano.
“When he played it for me,” Lauderdale recalls, “I couldn’t believe the quality I was hearing — the fact that the lyrics were so beautiful and the melodies were so interesting.”
By the time August showed him “Storm” and a third song, “Thunder” (performed on the CD with the Chieftains), Lauderdale was thinking: “This is no accident. This guy is a total genius.”
August, now 20, wound up moving with his sisters to Portland. He has equally enthusiastic things to say about Lauderdale.
Pink Martini’s leader was especially influential, he says, in helping the quartet marry their “folk a cappella group” with a full cocktail orchestra. He specifically credits the unusual voices-and-timpani arrangement of “Storm” to Lauderdale.
“The song had been written with instruments,” he notes. “But it turned out the vocal parts were even more interesting on their own. Thomas actually made that call. … If you add Thomas to the mix, usually something pretty cool will happen.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com