Big band brings big sound to birthday bash

Bartha Hartman-Stehelin was brimming with confidence when she auditioned to be the vocalist for a nameless big band in Whitehorse 25 years ago.

Bartha Hartman-Stehelin was brimming with confidence when she auditioned to be the vocalist for a nameless big band in Whitehorse 25 years ago.

Conductor Henry Klassen was looking for musicians that would be performing at a circumpolar health conference.

“I came in and sang, and told him, ‘You know that I’m the one that’s right for this part,’” Hartman-Stehelin said.

“He said, ‘Well, there are other people auditioning,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I know they’re good, but none of them know big band like I do.’”

It marked the beginning of the Circumpolar Swing Band, and Hartman-Stehelin’s 10-year tenure as singer for the 1940s swing music group.

On Saturday night, past and current members of the 19-piece band – now known as The Big Band – are celebrating its silver anniversary with a birthday bash at Mount McIntyre.

Over the years, the band has played countless shows around the territory but one of the most memorable performances was in the summer of 1992.

The band opened for a group of musicians at the Dawson City Music Festival that would soon become one of the country’s most beloved bands, the Barenaked Ladies.

“Every night was an absolute crazy party with these guys,” Hartman-Stehelin said of the band, who were gaining popularity at the time but still without a major label.

“And when they were on stage, the place was totally alive and rocking like you wouldn’t believe.”

Former trumpeter Tim Bullen remembers that weekend fondly, too.

Musicians at the festival were required to take part in a clinic or workshop offered on site, and Bullen chose acapella singing.

“We’re in this little Anglican church by the river, the place is packed and there’s no one to lead this thing,” he said.

“All of a sudden these guys from Barenaked Ladies walk in and they taught us how to sing ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’”

Bullen and Hartman-Stehelin, who now lives in St. Albert, Alta., will be returning to their old stomping grounds this weekend for the celebration, which is both a performance and a reunion of sorts.

Hartman-Stehelin said she’s always been fond of big band music.

Being part of a band meant an opportunity to socialize with like-minded people, too.

“We had more fun than you can ever shake a stick at,” she said.

“It wasn’t just a band that loved to play, but we had incredible musicians, too. Monday night was sort of our social night, we had band rehearsal and would go to the Kopper King for wings after.”

She still remembers the band’s first performance as if it was yesterday, and watching people’s faces light up as they heard the band play.

But the greatest thing about big band music, she says, is how it brings people back to innocence.

“It was before the bomb, before Kennedy was shot, the bands really came to life then,” she said.

Bullen, who has been playing the trumpet for over 40 years, remembers performing at the Commissioner’s Ball in Dawson City and at the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Highway celebrations.

He said he’s looking forward to meeting up with the friends he hasn’t seen in 20 years, and “getting that Yukon flavour back in my blood.”

Fawn Fritzen has been with the band for about seven years, and its vocalist for the last two.

She originally joined as a pianist, which was a bit of a learning curve, she said.

“I’d never played with a band before, never played jazz, so I got through my first tune and Kelly (music director) said ‘OK, can you swing it?’”

“I had no idea what he was talking about. But everyone was really nice and I went back and tried it again, and learned what swing meant.”

Fritzen, who replaced outgoing vocalist Rebekah Bell in 2013, describes the experience of performing with a 19-piece band as “energizing” and compares it to being part of a choir or a sports team.

“It’s a huge high,” she said, “to have so many people supporting your sound.”

Saturday’s celebrations will feature three sets of dance music, Fritzen said.

There will also be a tribute and fundraiser for local musician Bruce Bergman, who needs triple bypass surgery followed by a kidney transplant, she added.

The show is on the same night as another fundraiser for Bergman, held at the Robert Service Campground.

“Since we couldn’t make it to that we wanted to find a way to contribute,” Fritzen said.

All proceeds from the evening’s liquor sales will go towards Bergman’s medical expenses.

Tickets are $20 and available at Dean’s Strings. Children 12 and under get in free. Doors open at 7 p.m. with music starting at 7:30 p.m.

“And if you happen to wear silver, you’ll be eligible for a prize,” Fritzen said.

“But the most important thing at the end of the day is the music and people coming to dance. That’s what we do, we play dance music.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at

myles@yukon-news.com