It's common knowledge that Ari Shapiro, host of the NPR program All Things Considered, is a rock star reporter with an iconic radio voice, but for two nights this month, Shapiro will put his vocal prowess on display when he joins the San Francisco symphony and "little orchestra" Pink Martini for a two-night run at Davies Symphony Hall.
A cross-genre ensemble founded by pianist Thomas Lauderdale, Pink Martini has a wildly diverse repertoire that is influenced by classical, pop, jazz, and world music. Described by Lauderdale as "an urban musical travelogue," the Portland-based ensemble sees themselves as global ambassadors of a broader, more inclusive America.
Shapiro will share the mic with songstress Storm Large, a powerhouse performer who got her musical start on Haight Street. We caught up with both vocalists at the start of a two-week tour to get the inside scoop on singing with Pink Martini.
7x7: How did you land a spot with Pink Martini?
Shapiro: They're from my hometown [Portland] and over time I became friends with them. One evening I threw a barbecue [in DC] that turned into sing along around my piano. The next day Thomas called and said, "We have an idea for a song that we want a man to sing on the next album. Why don't you come record with us?" A few months later I was in the studio.
Large: China Forbes was a good friend of mine and when she needed vocal surgery Thomas called me. I said no, but he and China insisted. When I agreed, I had to learn 10 songs in five languages in four days and I managed it somehow.
7x7: Tell us about your first live performance with Pink Martini.
Shapiro: The first time I ever performed with the band was at the Hollywood Bowl in front of [nearly] 18,000 people. It felt completely surreal.
Large: My first show was four sold-out concerts at the Kennedy Center. After every show people would stop me and say it was amazing and I would say, "Don't congratulate me until all four are done. When I grab a towel and a glass of wine you can tell me I'm awesome."
7x7: As guest performers, what is it like to work with one another?
Shapiro: Storm is incredible. The first time she ever performed it was with less than a week's notice and it was nerve racking for both of us. We held each other's hands and got through it and it created a bond that has existed every since.
Large: Ari is kind of an annoyingly perfect human being. He makes everything better and I love him with the fury of a tire fire on the sun. The very first time [we performed together] he was really helpful in keeping me calm. He should be detestable, but he is just love on legs and one of the kindest most genuine, intelligent people I know.
7x7: How does performing with a full symphony compare to your typical performance?
Shapiro: It's an incredible feeling to have 50-60 phenomenal musicians lifting you up. Twelve people is a really full sound, but nothing like the complete wall of music you get from a symphony.
Large: Pink Martini is a little orchestra, and I love that, but when you add a full-size orchestra it's just this oceanic sound. It adds emotional emphasis to what we're doing and makes everything much more grand.
7x7: Do you have a most memorable performance with Pink Martini?
Shapiro: There was an outdoor performance on Mount Lycabettus in Athens during the worst of the economic crisis. We were outdoors with a young audience on a hot August night and there were people sitting on cliff edges watching the show for free. You could hear the cicadas and smell the pines and it was like a moment of relief from the onslaught of bad news. [Pink Martini] is always sort of like that—a little escape into a world that's a little sunnier a little more joyful.
Large: Thomas really curates for the [whole] world. I think it's incredibly rare for smaller countries to experience Americans coming to their town and honoring their culture. There's a Romanian song [Pana cand nu te iubeam] that we learned from Maria Tanase just for Romania. As I started singing it [during a performance in Timişoara] you could feel everyone in the audience holding their breath. When I took a break they erupted. It really brought home for me the truth that music brings people together. Sometimes the only pleasure people know is when the pain is suspended. If you can fill someone with hope and pride and joy and light, if they can just get a breath, then maybe something can change.
7x7: What are you looking forward to on this two-week tour?
Shapiro: I love summer tours—so many venues are outdoors and people picnic and bring bottles of wine. The zoo in Portland will be great.
Large: Seeing Charleston, South Carolina and getting back to San Francisco—that's where I got my start. I have a lot of friends there and I just love it.
// Ari Shapiro and Storm Large will perform with Pink Martini and the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall (Civic Center) on July 28 and 29, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30-$95, sfsymphony.org