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Swing out, sister 

by Kris Dinnison

Before Nintendo was a household word, and TVs and computers became the centerpieces of family leisure time, the radio was often the gathering place for news and entertainment in American households. From radio, families heard news from the war overseas, followed their favorite heroes and villains in serials and soap operas, listened to their favorite bandleaders spin out the tunes of the time and got their first sugary taste of the advertising blitz that would soon inundate our daily lives. At Saturday's Pops Concert, the Spokane Symphony offers audiences a chance to travel back in time to the Swing Era of the 1940s and gather around that radio again when vocal quintet Five By Design takes over the Opera House stage to bring those days to life.

Five By Design, based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, has been performing shows centered around this period in American music for about 13 years. They have been compared to groups like the Modernaires and Manhattan Transfer. But Five By Design does more than just sing, explains Annie Matlow, director of marketing and public relations for the Spokane Symphony. "They play the music of the 1940s, but it's also the jingles and radio shows and soap operas that were so popular along with the big band music."

Along with the antics of a 1940s radio show, Five By Design also makes tribute to the patriotism that held the country together during wartime. "Radio was the most immediate way people found out what was happening in the war," says John Hancock, executive director of the Spokane Symphony. "It evoked more awareness of what it was really like than a newspaper."

The group has gone through a few reconfigurations since its formation 13 years ago. Currently its members are brothers Kurt and Terrance Niska, Kurt's wife Lorie Carpenter-Niska, Catherine Farr, and the brothers' childhood friend Michael Swedberg. One of the group's founding members, Alton Accola, acts as a narrator and host for the show. They have been performing Radio Days since 1986, but also have other shows, including one called Club Swing, which focuses on the evolution of swing music from the 1930s through the 1950s.

The group's commitment to not only the music but the culture and influence of the Swing Era is clear. Their mission statement says that their goal is "to preserve the cultural heritage of vocal ensemble music from the big band era and pay tribute to the singers and vocal groups that originated the idiom." The popularity of swing music and dancing among younger generations in recent years has no doubt made that mission easier -- and audiences larger.

"This group has really capitalized on the nostalgia of the 1940s swing music," Hancock points out. "And it's really been repopularized in recent years."

Groups like the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Spokane's own Casey Magill and the Spirits of Rhythm have made the tunes more familiar to audiences of all ages. "This concert is in direct response to our listeners saying they loved big band music," says Matlow. "At the same time, it gives us an opportunity to broaden our appeal to a wider audience... there's been a revitalization of big band music among young people." And if the Spokane audience reaction to Portland's Pink Martini is any indication, Five By Design will get a similarly warm reception Saturday night.

Like Pink Martini, playing with symphonies in pops concerts around the nation has been one of the most effective ways Five By Design can accomplish its mission. "The music this program consists of is real Americana," says Hancock. "It's a connection, through the radio, to the music of the time." Matlow concurs: "Symphony music can interpret so many different styles. Using the symphony really as their studio band for their live radio broadcast helps them maintain the authentic feel of the 1940s radio show."

In fact, the Spokane Symphony will be breaking one of its Pops traditions at this concert by yielding the entire program time to Five By Design. "Usually when we have a Pops artist, they play half and the symphony plays half," explains Matlow. "But this time they have the whole schmere with the Symphony backing them up."

& & & lt;i & Radio Days, featuring Five by Design and the Spokane Symphony, is at the Opera House on Saturday, March 17, at 8 pm. Tickets: $16-$35. Call: 624-1200. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &

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