Mathilda Wrexham riffs on the special sound of Glenn Miller and enjoys a special afternoon listening to The Glenn Miller Orchestra on their second tour of New Zealand.
Despite having listened fairly endlessly as a child to my father's big blue double album of Glenn Miller's Greatest Hits, playing In the Mood until everyone else was distinctly out of the mood, I hadn't bothered to find out much about him and had no idea quite how successful he and his orchestra were during their time together but the sheer scale of the success bears noting. In 1939 alone they recorded 17 Top 10 Hits, 31 in 1940, and 11 each in 1941 and 1942. These songs included classic swing sensations many of us will recognise such as In the Mood, A String of Pearls, Little Brown Jug and Moonlight Serenade. They had a radio series titled Moonlight Serenade, airing on CBS three times a week and worked on movies, introducing hits like Chattanooga Choo Choo in Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Kalamazoo in Orchestra Wives (1942).
By uniquely combining the sounds of the clarinet and saxophone, Miller gave his band a distinctive sound and while jazz aficionados disapproved of his favouring of orchestration over improvisation, this particular style set the orchestra apart. From the gently hypnotic Moonlight Serenade, through the slinkyTuxedo Junction to the energetic In The Mood, this is music like no other.
And that special sound is back in town, thanks to The Glenn Miller Orchestra. All the way from California, this group of 17 musicians and two primary vocalists, is touring New Zealand again, after first visiting in 2013. The players have all sorts of fantastic associations with such famous orchestras as Count Basie, Woody Herman, Henry Mancini, have toured with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett and have played with Michael Jackson and Ray Charles. And it shows.
Ably led by the sardonic Rick Gerber, the trombonist band leader who includes on his resume performing with original members of the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Orchestra at a reunion gig he organised, the group perform many of Miller's stand out tunes pitch-perfectly. Starting slowly with a mix of mid-tempo numbers they hit their stride soon enough and we heard classics like Little Brown Jug and In the Mood before half-time. Many of the renditions were greeted by the predominantly silver-haired audience with gasps of delighted recognition but this enthusiasm failed to transform into raucous involvement when Gerber encouraged everyone to join in on Pennsylvania 65000, a telephone number for the Pennsylvania Hotel that, he assured us, still works when dialed in New York City.
The band was well complemented, at least in the second half when they really got going, by the vocal accompaniment of Wendy Smith-Brune, Mark Kopitske and The Swing Kittens, an upbeat swing vocal trio reprising songs sung by the Andrews sisters. The singers covered a good number of Miller's hits with stand-outs for me being Kopitske's version of At Last, the ensemble Chattanooga Choo Choo and The Swing Kittens' superb rendering of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. So energetic was their version that even the relatively sterile Aotea Centre couldn't keep an enthusiastic couple in their seats and they began dancing in the aisles.
It was a shame more didn't join in but the venue doesn't really lend itself to such spontaneous expressions of enthusiasm. And that's perhaps where this show fell down a little for me. Miller's music is hugely catchy, difficult to dislike and utterly danceable. It would have been great to have the orchestra perform at a venue which encouraged dancing. Perhaps, if New Zealand hosts the orchestra again, the promoters could consider presenting this type of entertainment as it was originally enjoyed, with dancers. This might make it more appealing to the young, who were, unfortunately, conspicuously absent at the matinee.
That said, it was a very entertaining afternoon, a foot-tapping tour of the Miller era, that moved at a great pace. In a clever nod to local sensibilities, the band included a number of tunes recognising the hundred year commemoration of the Anzac contribution to WW1 and finished strongly with a beautifully delivered version of Pokarekare Ana by The Swing Kittens.
The shows continue in the South Island until the 8th of November and, if you have ever enjoyed the recorded music of Glenn Miller, this is a great opportunity to get out and see it performed live, in great style. Check Eventfinda for the itinerary.