When he was 13, Thomas Lauderdale's world in Portland, Ore., opened up wide. That was when the future founder of the ensemble called Pink Martini saw the 1946 Rita Hayworth film "Gilda" for the first time.
"I loved the 1940s glamour and all that," Lauderdale, now 43, said. "What's distressing is that it's being lost. We're in real trouble these days because of reality television. I yearn for the grace and elegance of the past."
Lauderdale has been doing his best to reclaim some of those old qualities through the music of Pink Martini, which has been performing highly stylish arrangements of vintage songs since 1994.
On Saturday night, the group of about a dozen musicians (instrumentalists and vocalists), will make its Baltimore premiere as the featured attraction for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's season-opening gala concert, led by principal pops conductor Jack Everly.
"If it weren't for symphony orchestras, we would probably not have a career in the United States," said Lauderdale, who plays piano in Pink Martini. "We have performed with more than 50 of them. When you have an orchestra behind you, it is totally thrilling. It becomes like an old-fashioned, Hollywood orchestra from the 1940s."
The BSO's galas have tended to be on the classical side of the repertoire. This year, music director Marin Alsop is otherwise engaged. On Saturday, she'll conduct one of England's biggest annual musical events, the Last Night of the Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall. (Alsop is the first woman to conduct the finale of the Promenade summer concert series since its founding 118 years ago.)
Pink Martini, which has played Royal Albert Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and any number of other major venues, has covered an extraordinary range of music over the years.
Its newest album, "Get Happy," due to be released Sept. 24, reconfirms how wide that range is. There are pieces by Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin and singer/songwriter Anna McGarrigle. In addition to English, there are songs in Chinese, Farsi, French, German, Japanese, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish.
The range of guest artists on that new disc is just as wide, including singer/composer Rufus Wainwright, some great-grandchildren of Maria and Georg Von Trapp (they inspired "The Sound of Music"), and the cabaret artist Meow Meow.
Most movingly, Phyllis Diller sings the Charlie Chaplin ballad "Smile," recorded in the comedian's living room before her death last year. "At age 94, she knew exactly how she wanted to do it," Lauderdale said.
For its BSO appearance, Pink Martini will feature two vocal soloists, Storm Large and Ari Shapiro.
Shapiro is best known for his day job at National Public Radio, where he has been White House correspondent since 2010 (he starts a new assignment in London in January).
"I've admired Pink Martini forever," Shapiro, 34, said. "I grew up in Portland and was 13 or 14 when they started. I became friends with them later. I gave parties for them at my house, and one ended up with a sing-along. Thomas asked me if I would be interested in singing on their next album."
Shapiro had done some theater work and sung in choirs during his high school and college years, but "I had given up all of that as an adult," he said. "I can vividly remember going into the recording studio and thinking: 'Who do I think I am?' "
He turned out to be a natural. Shapiro frequently moonlights with Pink Martini and has a track on the new album.
Lauderdale asked the smoky-voiced Large to sing with the group in 2011, when one of its founding members, China Forbes, took a leave for vocal cord surgery.
"I thought Thomas was crazy," said Large, 44. "China has such a beautiful, classical, demure voice. I was more bluesy, gospel-y, rock 'n' roll, gruff — not the environment Pink Martini thrives in. I was friends with China and Thomas, but I wasn't a big fan of Pink Martini. I never really saw them perform. I really had to cram for my first gig at the Kennedy Center in 2011."
Large, who is also an actress and playwright, proved such a successful fit with the ensemble that Lauderdale asked her to stay on after Forbes returned. Both singers have several songs on "Get Happy."
"I believe Thomas is a brilliant curator of timeless music," Large said. "I'm very spoiled by Pink Martini. Singing with them has expanded my repertoire and made me a better musician. They do such beautiful music. A lot of pop music today is for short attention spans and is all about being the most outrageous."
Pink Martini's appeal is not confined to any one demographic.
"When the band plays outdoors, I see teenagers and senior citizens out there," Shapiro said. "When we go to Europe, it's like rock crowds."
Reaching diverse listeners was what Lauderdale had in mind when he launched Pink Martini.
He was very interested in local Portland politics from an early age. Dissatisfied with the kind of music he heard at political fundraisers, he decided to start a little orchestra to play for such events.
"My original goal was to create a band that would appeal to old and young, conservative and liberal, and everything in between," Lauderdale said. "Amazingly, it seems to be working, after almost 20 years."
Lauderdale, who did some work in city government years ago, still thinks about getting into politics.
"I love my city," he said. "There's part of me that still wants to be mayor of Portland. But politics seems so messy now. And the public is so unreasonable about expectations. Would I rather run around the world and get applause onstage and do well financially, or spend my time under fluorescent lighting listening to angry constituents every day?"
The answer, so far, is to keep making music.
"My hope is that people leave our concerts feeling a little bit more optimistic," Lauderdale said, "and go out into the world with at least a tiny glimmer of happiness."
If you go
The BSO gala concert featuring Pink Martini will be at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $40 to $75. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun