SARA TOTH – EDITOR
The Glenn Miller Orchestra typically tours 11 months out of the year — 10 weeks on the road, one week off, repeat, playing more than 200 shows along the way. One of those shows came on March 11, 2020, at the University of California, Los Angeles.
And then the world shut down.
“(That show) felt somewhat normal, even though we knew that COVID was approaching,” Erik Stabnau said. “But in that week, that one week where everything shut down, we went on break, thinking ‘We’ll be back in a week.’ ”
One week became two weeks, became a month, became two months. The orchestra played only one show in the summer of 2020 and tried one or two small virtual programs. But now, with restrictions lifting, the Glenn Miller Orchestra is on the road again. Their next stop is Chautauqua Institution, where the band will play at 8:15 p.m. July 1 in the Amphitheater — good news, Stabnau said, as he would say the Glenn Miller Orchestra is “an experience best had in person.”
“It’s exciting for me,” said Stabnau, the orchestra’s music director for tonight’s show. “It’s been a bit strange to have had this past year, and we’re looking forward to getting back to the grind.”
The Glenn Miller Orchestra, as it currently exists, was formed in honor of Miller, a celebrated big-band trombonist and bandleader, and his original, eponymous Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Miller volunteered to join the U.S. military to entertain troops in World War II, but on Dec. 15, 1944, his aircraft en route to Paris disappeared over the English Channel. His band was reconstituted following his disappearance and has been playing his hits — “Moonlight Serenade,” “In the Mood,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” to name a few — ever since. It’s those hits that Chautauquans can expect to hear tonight, Stabnau said, in addition to some of Miller’s lesser-known works, and other songs from the big band era. That way, there’s something for nearly everyone.
“We have a lot of fans that know and love the music, and they come to hear Glenn Miller’s big hits and big band music, but we have an equal number of fans that are coming to hear the orchestra for the first time, maybe not knowing what to expect,” Stabnau said. “There’s something special about this band, being a jazz big band. … There’s an acoustic sound to the orchestra that most people, and especially people that listen to more modern music, aren’t going to be used to hearing, especially in a live setting.”
That almost-entirely acoustic sound, he said, “is a very neat thing for people to hear. … Sonically, it’s an interesting group to listen to in that regard.”
At the height of the genre’s popularity in the 1930s and ‘40s, Stabnau said, there were dozens of big bands touring the country. They were extremely popular, but because of changing interests and the costs associated with keeping such acts on the road, the numbers dwindled. Now, he thinks the Glenn Miller Orchestra is the last full-time touring big band.
“It’s a rare opportunity to get to play big band music professionally every night for that reason,” he said. “It’s the kind of music that I love. I grew up loving big band music. People will often ask me, ‘Do you get tired playing the same stuff every night?’ And the answer is no. I love it. I really genuinely love this music. … It never gets old. It’s great stuff.”
Stabnau was with the Glenn Miller Orchestra the last time the band played Chautauqua, in 2017. He remembers how large the Amp is, and the size of the stage itself — “It’s massive, so it’s nice to spread out,” he said — and he is looking forward to being back.
“Chautauqua is awesome,” Stabnau said. “That kind of feel is so perfect for the summer, and it’s what a lot of people in the band look forward to. The feel is just right.”
Especially, he said, coming out of the pandemic.
“Everyone is excited about getting back together for live events,” he said. “… I think that’s going to be a very therapeutic, very exciting thing for people, to be able to come out and hear live music. That’s going to be a big moment.”