Nick Hilscher spends most of his days on a tour bus with a 16 piece orchestra. Some nights, the band ends up at a symphony hall, while the next night they might play at a ball room or a high school theater.
“Last night, we were in Woodward, Iowa, on the bus on a normal paved road. Then we took a left turn and ended up driving on gravel through miles of cornfields. The fields opened up and we saw this great old ballroom,” he said. Hilsher had arrived at Lake Robbins Ballroom, built in 1931. The historic building was the perfect setting for the Glenn Miller Orchestra to belt out favorites from the Big Band Era.
Hilscher is leading the Glenn Miller Orchestra at Hutchins Street Square on Saturday, Aug. 16 at 7 p.m.
Hilscher started out with the band as the male vocalist in 1998, when he was 21 years old. The Atlanta, Georgia, native left in 2005 to get married, then returned to the band as conductor in 2011.
“I wound up back on the road with everyone,” he said.
He still performs as a vocalist while conducting, touring 48 weeks a year. He took time out for five questions with the News-Sentinel while on the bus to the next performance. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
What’s your favorite piece of Glenn Miller lore?
Over the years, we meet people who were in the band, and we hear all kinds of great stories about his personality. But the thing that really gets me about Glenn Miller is that he had the number one band in the country for four years, all these No. 1-selling records. He was great musician and wonderful arranger, plus a smart businessman to run these bands, and he gave it all up to join the war effort.
What can Lodi expect from the performance?
They can expect the classic Glenn Miller Orchestra. Glenn Millier had some big hit records from 1939 to 1942, and that’s what we play. That includes “Moonlight Sernade,” “In the Mood,” “Tuxedo Junction,” and “String of Pearls,” plus more from the American Songbook.
We have a female vocalist, Natalie Angst, who performs some of the songs that Marian Hutton did with the band. We also have a vocal group, three guys out of the band who sing, and we perform “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
What’s it like keeping music alive from such a long gone era?
It’s interesting. The band has always been made up of guys coming in, and guys leaving after one to three years. Most of them are students who are just out of college. A lot of them have passion for music, or passion for jazz, a passion for delving into the old style of big band music and playing it and performing it.
It’s not old music played in a stale and stagnant way. It’s old music presented in an exciting and fun way. It’s always been a young band, which is how Glenn Miller ran his band.
What’s your favorite part of the show?
I enjoy the entire show. Nearly 75 percent of what we play are orginal Miller tunes. Of the hits, my favorite is “String of Pearls.” On tour, we keep about 250 pieces of music with us to perform, but we have 1500 in our office. I’m able to delve into that library and bring out new things that the band maybe hasn’t seen for 70 years. For me, it keeps the entire show fresh.
With so many pieces to choose from, what’s rehearsing like?
We rehearse each night during sound check, just for about 20 minutes. They understand the music already, so I can put an arrangement in front of them, and they’ve picked it up after running through it one or two times. It’s a pleasure for me to be in that environment.