Big Band Jazz: Audience Gathers For Fabulous Glenn Miller Orchestra

FREDONIA – An audience filled the 1891 Fredonia Opera House Sunday evening to hear the Fabulous Glenn Miller Orchestra play Big Band Jazz, from the 1930s and 40s.

The orchestra boasts the same make up of instruments which it had when their original leader was still alive, with 16 wind instruments plus piano, bass and drums. Their present conductor, Nick Hilscher, told the audience that each musician has a book of sheet music in front of him which sports more than 300 arrangements from which they can play, and that the music in the books has been selected from a library with literally thousands of arrangements which have been made especially for the orchestra.

The band performs with the trademark music stands in front of each musician. The non-wind instruments are to the audience’s left, and the woodwind and brass instruments are seated in three rows, to the audience’s right. The instrumentalists all wear gray blazers, dark trousers and a bright red tie. Hilscher wears a black business suit, and the ensemble’s ”girl singer,” Julia Rich wore a long red gown which emphasized her slender form.

People come to an organization which has been performing steadily for more than 50 years to hear the music which they know well and love, which is associated with the orchestra, and it poured over the footlights at us. Starting with the orchestra’s theme song, ”Moonlight Serenade,” and progressing through hits such as ”Chattanooga Choo Choo,” ”Moon River,” and ”String of Pearls.” Probably none of the original musicians are still with the organization, and some of the members seemed very young.

The audience was obviously very familiar with the orchestra’s sound and the music which it performed. In a work such as ”Pennsylvania 6-5000,” in which the music occasionally stops and the instrumentalists – and the audience as well – are supposed to sing out the name of the piece, clearly everyone knew that there was a two beat pause before the title was sung, and they sang it in perfect unison.

The entire performance was carefully choreographed. Trumpeters waved a variety of mutes which would change the sound of their instruments, and they waved them in an elaborate pattern and in unison. At one point, they put a large mute which resembled a derby hat on their heads, like hats. Soloists walked to the microphone at the front of the stage, then returned to their seats as the music poured on, and occasionally an entire section would stand, or sway, or make a vocal exclamation, as the arrangements required.

The trombones often slid from side to side as they performed, producing a sound quality similar to when a person stands on a bridge over a railroad track, and the roar of the train rushes at the listener, then quickly fades away.

In a tradition similar to the singing group The Modernaires, which was made up of the orchestra’s singers plus a few of the instrumentalists, a few songs were performed by Hilscher, Rich and a few instrumentalists. This new ensemble was called The Moonlight Serenaders.

Hilscher also sang certain of the numbers. He sings in a rich baritone, which certainly did the music justice. I heard a number of people talking during the intermission, and I agreed with their opinion, that often the singer tried too hard, trying to increase the audience’s applause or to produce a certain effect, which resulted in a slight degree of audience discomfort with him, but the effect of his leadership was certainly positive and effective.

All of the performers were excellent musicians. Their performance, both technically and emotionally was sound. To people whose youth was accompanied and punctuated by this music, it was a splendid evening out, and everyone seemed to have a great time.