Musical Director: Ray McVay
Reviewer: John Kennedy
From the late 60s to early 70s any Christmas UK TV schedule would be meagre fare were it to miss another repeat of The Glenn Miller Story (1954, Dir. Anthony Mann). Jimmy Stewart’s signature voice of considered throaty hesitation on the telephone to his wife remains cinematic gold and was often parodied with affection. The musical buffs in this afternoon’s audience might well have exploited the intermission to remind their patient partners that both Henry Mancini collaborated on the film score and not least, Louis Armstrong playing a cameo role.
Miller’s legacy of Big Band Swing and Classical Dance Hall music and song defines a specific microcosm of popular culture during the latter part of the Second World War. Brief Encounters diehards may disagree. He would surely be considerably pleased to see this near sell-out afternoon matinee gig at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Perhaps, emulating Miller’s contemporary mass appeal, the indulgent allure of Strictly Come Dancing measures our yearning for a more innocent and escapist panacea for troubled times? And for this afternoon at least, nostalgia is just what it used to be. And wasn’t the grand organ subtly lit to perfection?
Veteran band founder, director and compère, Ray McVay, takes us on a sentimental journey through a programme packed with over twenty-three numbers, of which not all were Miller staples. The charismatic and ball-gowned Catherine Sykes sings a medley of Vera Lynn classics that immediately engage a rather shy audience. The highly energetic and acrobatic youthful troupe The Swing Time Jivers do exactly what their name describes. All the classics are featured, of which String Of Pearls probably draws the most affectionate response of anticipation across the auditorium. The lesser-known arrangement by Miller of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto is fascinating in its subtle intelligence and lightness of touch – ‘goes down a storm in Moscow’ assures McVay. Loyal to Jazz antecedents, many lead instrumentalists take solo spots to much applause in addition to the different sections occupying front of stage.
The genius of Miller’s arrangements and the crafted blending of complementary harmonies and textures can only be truly appreciated when seeing the music played live. This, of course, takes for granted McVay’s intimate empathy for that unique entity we know as The Glenn Miller Sound. The band is allowed off the leash to lend vocalist Mark Porter’s Sinatra tribute medley some brassy braggadocio, not least for him having to battle with a nasty bug from the night before. There is room aplenty for wit and wry shenanigans as with the call-out chorus to Pennsylvania 65000 which falls dead on the audience thus prompting the band, to a man, to walk off in a huff. Great theatre and great response next time. ‘It’s only a telephone number for goodness sake Birmingham!’ quips McVay.
Post interval sees the band in US smart uniform giving American Patrol a lusty clarion call. The vocal combo, Moonlight Serenaders, directed by trombonist, Ray Wordsworth, together with Mark Porter and Catherine Sykes excel with their multi-harmony arrangement of Perfidia. Closing numbers Chattanooga Choo Choo and Tuxedo Junction revel in playful sound charades with the latter featuring the trombone section walking the aisles and stalls. Inevitably, In The Mood, finally blows away the cobwebs and has people carousing and waving out of their seats. A charming and endearing musical experience.
The reviewer is duty bound to declare an interest. His mother danced with GIs at what is believed to be Glenn Miller’s last ever UK gig weeks before D-Day 1944. His aircraft disappeared en-route to Paris later that December.
Reviewed on 02 January 2017 | Image: Contribute