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(Un)Harmony Sweepstakes...and a word about the NY Phil's appearance at Davies

May 14, 2012

One of the things that the a cappella world prides itself on is how stylistically all-encompassing its remit is. In a cappella concerts and competitions, anything (supposedly) goes, from barbershop and jazz to instrumental rock music imitations and quasi-choral art pieces. At least, that was how the articulate a cappella performer, arranger and producer Deke Sharon put it in an interview I did with him and a few other a cappella mavens for VoiceBox the other day.

So it was interesting on Saturday night when I served as a judge for the 2012 National Finals of the Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Competition at the Marin Center in San Rafael,  to witness how challenging this compellingly broad theory actually is in reality.

The competition featured an array of different styles of performance. There were barbershop groups -- Rooftop Rhythm (Chicago), Foreign Exchange (Boston); jazz ensembles -- Sing Theory (San Francisco), GQ (Mid-Atlantic); rock outfits -- Six Appeal (Pacific Northwest -- pictured above), Audiofeels (New York City) and one group, Down 4 The Count (Los Angeles) that put out an amalgam of several of these styles.

But the different musical genres didn't really sit well together in competition.

The basic problem is that it's very hard to compare a group of nine youths in tight jeans, sneakers and skinny ties all jumping about and doing beat-box versions of pop favorites with a group of middle-aged men and women singing  jazz-inflected arrangements of quaint old songs. It's like trying to judge a pianist and symphony orchestra playing a Beethoven concerto against a jazz trio doing a take on a Keith Jarrett piece.

The other palpable thing is that the singers themselves seemed seemed a little disgruntled at having to pit their skills against other groups that come from such radically different vocal music genres. Many times, the hosts of the event -- last year's winning team, the Da Capo barbershop group -- made fun of other genres and enthused wildly over the barbershop ensembles on the program. This was all done in a lighthearted fashion, of course, but I sensed an undercurrent of seriousness beneath the fun.

And I even heard a couple of the judges complain about having to compare rock style groups with the barbershop ones. "I just don't think of barbershop as true a cappella," one judge said during the intermission.

Still, even though the genres chafe against each other and evaluating them side by side is, as the old saying goes, like comparing apples with oranges, the competition was a lot of fun. The 3,000 seat auditorium was packed. People loved the music and the energy of the performers. And for me personally, as someone who finds genres in music to be an impediment to enjoyment, I quite liked all the different style bunged into a program together.

PS On a completely different note: I attended The New York Philharmonic's concert at Davies Symphony Hall last night. Besides smoldering billows of piano brilliance from Yefim Bronfman in the performance of Magnus Lindberg's Piano Concerto No. 2, some lovely woodwind solos in the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony and the slouchy insouciance of Bernstein's Lonely Town: Pas de deux from On the Town (which was played as the encore), I found the whole thing to be rather underwhelming.


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