The Swingles Take Manhattan

The purest musical moments one can experience, as performer or audience member, involve joy, exhilaration, wonder, and a bevy of similar emotions. When The Swingles perform, the audience is pretty much guaranteed to experience a generous collection of such moments. This septet of international singers (now 4 Brits, 2 Americans, and 1 Canadian) recently finished a tour of the United States which included performances at the National A Cappella Convention, an appearance at the Boston Sings festival, and a number of shows in the south and eastern seaboard. The final show, Saturday in New York City, was heavily attended by family and friends of the group’s newest member, tenor Jon Smith, who hails from Long Island (the home of Acatribe). An interview with Jon will be coming here soon, but for now I will just note that he received a raucous hometown reception at Subculture on Saturday night.

This was my fifth time seeing the Swingles over the past few years, and I walked out believing, as usual, that this was their best performance to date. It is a rare and remarkable set of qualities The Swingles possess, a stunning combination of raw vocal talent, ambitious and effective arranging skills, and incredibly adept stage presence. The group uses these characteristics to great effect across a chasm of musical styles, from classical fugues to Turkish ballads, Brit rock covers (and I do love Elbow) to tangos, with original compositions mixed in too. Saturday’s performance was no exception, as the group offered songs from its two most recent albums as well as group staples such as its famous interpretation of Bach’s Fugue in G minor (go ahead, Google it- you’ll find versions of the group performing it literally decades ago) and the Beatles’ “Blackbird” (ditto).

My wife joined me to see the group for the first time, and she (a music teacher) was impressed by the group’s intonation, phrasing, and range. Indeed, it is precisely these types of unique musical traits which bring me back to see The Swingles again and again. I have seen close to one hundred professional a cappella performances over the years, and there are few if any groups who can match The Swingles in these categories of heightened musicality.  I am always floored by Sara Brimer’s pure, unwavering descants and the exquisite control exhibited by soloists like Oliver Griffiths in “After the Storm.” One interesting development was the new (to my recollection) use of vocal looping in the set. The group did the audience a service by explaining that this was not a traditional backing track and then making light of how it can go horribly wrong where the unexpected happens as they record the loop onstage. It is exciting that a group which already does  so many things well in performance is actively looking for new ways to express its sound.

A few other details about a typical Swingles performance, all used to great effect on Saturday, which bear mentioning. The group makes excellent use of staging and pairings of singers, a technique which is visually engaging even if it is not attributable to musical necessity. The singers are also particularly good at expressing emotional investment for each song, without regard for the part they are singing. Solos and duets are powerful both musically and visually. Unlike many groups, The Swingles have seven soloists, each of whom would earn star status in any nearly other group. Smartly, the group does not abuse or exploit this obvious strength, instead giving each only one or two full solos and sprinkling the rest of the set with duets and ensemble pieces.

On Saturday night, the crowd hungered for more solos from the local Smith but were hardly disappointed with what they got instead.  I heard many audience members, from a wide range of ages, discuss afterwards how much they enjoyed various songs. The collective feeling in the room was one of elation, triumph, and satisfaction. If you’ve ever seen The Swingles perform, you know it well.

2015- The Year in A Cappella

By: Dave Bernstein,  Tara Marie Ahn, and Christopher Hoffman

 

Unless you were unplugged from society in 2015, we shouldn’t have to tell you that it was another HUGE year for a cappella.

It all begins and ends with Pentatonix and Pitch Perfect 2, with a whole lot of great albums, videos, and news in the middle.

Before we begin, we just want to note that we have revived the monthly news posts at Acatribe so pay attention at the beginning of each month for all the relevant news from the previous month. In light of preparations for this post, we are skipping a formal December post but you may find some December news scattered in here. We will also include some of the big news from the September, October, and November news posts but you can read the rest on the summary post for each individual month. As always, if you have big news you’d like to share, feel free to email us at news@acatribe.com.

Finally, if you can think of some noteworthy a cappella news we omitted (and we’re sure there is plenty), please feel free to comment below or email us and we will update the post accordingly.

Also, though she is credited as a co-author, we have to note that our own Tara Marie Ahn did a ton of the work here and is very deserving of most of the credit. Show her some love on Twitter!

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So, let’s dive right in with the box office and music charts success of Pitch Perfect 2 and Pentatonix, respectively.

Pitch Perfect 2 was…a little bigger than expected. As in it grossed nearly $70 million in its first weekend and found up at $184 million domestic at the box office, and another $103 million elsewhere, for a total worldwide gross of nearly $287 million. So, yeah. A cappella is even more mainstream than you might have thought. The movie did fine critically, for what it is, garnering a 66% at Rotten Tomatoes and getting decent reviews at Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Los Angeles Times, among others.

The movie also won the Top Soundtrack and Anna Kendrick thanked Deke Sharon and Ed Boyer in her acceptance speech.

Pentatonix did more in 2015 than we can fairly recount here. A few of their notable highlights, however, were:

Obviously there is plenty more Pentatonix news from 2015, but again- we can’t possibly get to it all. Feel free to add or share in the comments below! Continue reading…

October 2015 A cappella News

October was a huge month for Pentatonix, and a big month for other a cappella news as well. In light of the massive accomplishments for PTX, they get their own section in the lead here, and then we jump to the other news in the a cappella community.

Pentatonix

So, remember that time PTX released an album and it became the first a cappella album ever to hit number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart?

How about when they were on The Tonight Show, The Today Show, PBS News Hour, and more?

They were also written about in or interviewed by Time magazine, ABC NewsThe New York Times, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, People magazine, US magazine, Billboard magazine (x2), and more.  The group was all over social media as well, even taking over the YouTube twitter handle for awhile.

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Acappella the Musical: A Journey Worth Taking

The world seems to be moving awfully fast these days. News is old almost instantaneously, “friendship” can mean nothing more than the click of a button, and the medium by which we experience simple joys has shifted from our eyes to our screens, from watching, absorbing, and embracing an experience to capturing, tagging, and sharing it.  Acappella, playing now at the New York Music Theater Festival, explores the road back from this rapidly-evolving cyber-immersion, as reflected through the journey of a fictional church and gospel singer turned pop star.  That the show tells its story through just human voices, sung and spoken, is not a gimmick but an endorsement for the power of two people sitting in a room talking or 4 people standing on a stage singing, connecting on the most basic of levels. In fact, it is this mode of musical delivery, a cappella music, which most effectively engages the audience during the 90-minute production.

The vocal music comes in three varieties: solo/duet numbers, dialogue-based or supported ensemble numbers, and the distinguishing point in the show, a vocal band serving as the pit orchestra.  The first two are standard in musical theater, so it is the vocal band-as-orchestra which stands out.  Sometimes, the band is onstage providing context for narrative while backing up a character.  Other times, the band serves a traditional pit orchestra function, providing music while the set pieces are changed or while a character enters or exits.  On Sunday, the band was consistently strong, with arrangements rooted in soul and gospel, but also in doo wop.  Evan Feist, music director and sound designer (more on that in a moment) has crafted simple, effective harmonies from the deep catalog of music produced by The Acappella Company.  His arrangements should please traditionalists with full, accessible chords, but also appeal to those seeking something more intricate with moments like the ringing reverse belltones near the end of the first act.  One of the emotional highpoints of the show, the R&B-flavored “War With Myself,” is a little bit loose with some of the sparse backing parts but the goal, of allowing the powerful lyrics and soloists to connect without distraction, is well-conceived if a little tenuous on Sunday.

Feist also serves as sound designer, a role which undoubtedly involves the difficult task of managing 14 separate wireless microphones.  As I was told in my interview with Executive Producer Greg Cooper and Author Vynnie Meli last week (read it here!), the group was just beginning the sound check process a few days before opening night.  Considering that very short adjustment period, the sound was pretty good on Sunday. A soprano in the vocal band was too loud at times, and a few of the middle voices were occasionally muddled, but the lead characters came through clearly, both in dialogue and in music.

So, as the a cappella writer, I’ve covered the basics of the music. Two more quick points on that topic. First, The Acappella Company is usually a Christian music quartet (otherwise known as “Acappella”), and their inspiration clearly derives from a strong faith-based source.  As Cooper correctly assured me, however, the show does not feel like a “church” or “praise” show, at least not in any exclusive sense.  Harmonies like these are universal, whether the words have religious or secular meaning, and Vynnie Meli’s book manages to broaden the story’s appeal without excising the undertones of faith and hope.  Second, the performers in the show are outstanding.  Tyler Hardwick, as lead Jeremiah, has a bright, soaring tenor which is neither brittle nor strained.  Anthony Chatmon II offers a compelling contrast with his earthy, resolute baritone.  The show’s experienced backbone, featured as both a quartet and as comedy relief, includes the immensely talented Broadway veterans Cheryl Freeman and Virginia Ann Woodruff, former Drama Desk nominee Miche Braden, and the outrageous Darryl Jovan Williams. The group’s performance of “Old Time Gospel” is a rollicking good time and one of the musical high points of the show. Simply put, Acappella is an unconditional success on the musical front.

Now, I don’t claim to be a theater critic but I will do my best to articulate why this could work as a long-running staged production, but not without a little revision and polish.  Despite Meli’s best efforts to take a collection of pre-existing, loosely related music and craft a moving and engaging story, there is still work to be done (as I’m sure she would agree).  To begin with, the story is a little disjointed and even confusing early on. There is not enough time invested in creating the backdrop for Jeremiah’s rise, including his relationship with Simon. The two were, we are later told, “Black-Eyed Peas in a pod” from the time they were young, but the vast majority of this narrative comes after the fact and is largely told through the embittered viewpoint of Simon, who comes across as a bit one-dimensional.  There may well be external factors such as show length and source catalog which will make introduction of additional character development a challenge, but it is a challenge worth tackling in order to give the story a better arc and a more nuanced portrayal of both Jeremiah and Simon.  This is important, particularly since their relationship depicts the dichotomy at the core of the story, with Jeremiah’s wandering and superficial career taking him further every day from the simple acceptance of self which Simon purportedly claims to have achieved.  Despite Simon’s claim, he bristles from the moment he learns Jeremiah is back in town until his final lines walking away from Jeremiah in false triumph, and a little less might go a long way here. Other than that, there are also a few creaky transitions, some attributable to the music and others to the book, which still need to be ironed out.

The story succeeds in the bigger picture with the help of Aunt Leona (Freeman), Mary (Woodruff), and the irascible and hilarious Mrs. Sanders (Braden).  The trio, joined occasionally by the charming Mr. Turner (Williams), bring a light and welcome respite from the heavy drama of Jeremiah’s return to town.   More importantly, the show works because the music is inspired, the performers passionate, and the journey relatable.  The show’s tagline, “A musical about finding your own voice,” is hardly exclusive to the context in which it is portrayed here, and it is one which most audiences will find familiar and accessible.

In our prior interview, Meli conveyed her early hesitation about joining the team for a jukebox musical.  However, she has successfully avoided the potential pitfall of creating a disparate, incoherent story and instead honed in on a narrative which comfortably bridges the gap between the faith-based gospel music and a coming-of-age tale with broader social and personal themes.   There’s no question in my mind that a fully-developed and broadly appealing musical is inside Acappella if she and the rest of the creative team can polish a few of the rough spots, flesh out the characters a little more, and clean up some awkward transitions. Acappella is better than I expected, but with the right development it can be everything an audience looks for in a night at the theater: a relatable story told with drama, humor, and some terrific music.  Here’s to hoping the show continues to find its voice.

The Long Journey Behind Acappella The Musical

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Greg Cooper smiles a lot. The executive producer of Acappella, an entirely vocal musical show opening its weeklong run at the New York Musical Theatre Festival Tuesday, July 7, leans back at one point, lets out a hearty laugh, and talks about how this 12-year journey to get the show made has been a “pleasurable torture.”  The phrase harbors no negative connotation because it is delivered with a big smile and because it is clear that Cooper’s experience getting here has paralleled the show’s tagline: “a musical about finding your own voice”.  It is also apparent that he could not be happier with what is happening, regardless of any obstacles he has faced along the way.

In 2003, Cooper heard about the success of MAMMA MIA! (a tribute to the music of Swedish pop group ABBA) and the surge of other jukebox musicals which flooded New York City’s theater scene and he immediately thought of the extensive catalog of music produced by The Acappella Company and its founder, Keith Lancaster. Lancaster formed and sang with the Christian vocal quartet Acappella in 1982, and he still advises the group along with several other Christian vocal groups. Lancaster and The Acappella Company have been prolific, producing dozens of a cappella albums over the past 25 years, and Cooper describes that catalog as the “music of my life.”
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