The International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella has become one of the most popular and widely known a cappella events in America, with groups from all over the world competing for the chance to call themselves the number one group in the world. The competition’s final round, hosted Saturday April 16, 2011 at the beautiful Alice Tully Hall in New York City’s Lincoln Center, exemplified why the competition has become so popular. Showcasing six of the nation’s best groups and one from England, Saturday’s show demonstrated the innovative arranging, outstanding solo performances and creative choreography that we have come to expect from the final round of this competition.
The show was hosted by Dave Brown, co-founder of the Mouth Off! podcast, former ICCA producer, BYU Vocal Point alum and co-founder of BYU Noteworthy. His charming, friendly and engaging stage presence kept the show clipping pleasantly along- no small feat, considering each of the seven groups performs a 12-minute set, not including the intermittent performances by the Friday night High School competition champions. Dave opened the show cheerfully, wasting no time inviting to the stage the 2nd runner up from Friday Night’s ICHSA Finals, the Northern Highland High School Highland Voices (Allendale, NJ). This large co-ed group, sporting the now standard all black apparel with red accents, sang a fun, jazzy group arrangement of the Spiderman theme. This song was a great start to the show, complete with humorous angles in the choreography and energetic vocal delivery. Following Highland Voices was the 1st runner up from the High School competition, Wilsonville High School Soul’d Out (Wilsonville, OR). Another co-ed group, this bunch of singers took the stage with their men in classy blue shirts with black sweaters and their females in tastefully sequined tops with form-fitting black cardigans- a very hip looking group of high schoolers. Their song was Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia” which was the winner on Friday for Outstanding Arrangement. This cool arrangement showed off some tight power chords, a duo of guitar and trumpet solos from group members, and some cool, evocative choreography choices that at one point had more than half of the group crawling on the ground towards the quartet singing center stage. Another exemplary performance from the extremely talented high school division of the competition.
Following those two performances, the collegiate show officially began and the all-male Melodores from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN took the stage. These first time finalists dressed in a casual and comfortable looking combinations of jeans, blazers and yellow shirts and ties. Their opening song was Ludacris’ “How Low Can You Go”, and they won the audience over instantly with an energetic lead-in and a hilariously accurate imitation of the squeaky voice that drives the original version of the song. This first number also included an impressive four man dance break. Their second song was an interpretation of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. The soulful, dynamic solo and strong emotional development of this piece was one of the night’s highlights, though the bass and VP lacked much groove. The Melodores ended their set with a cover of Muse’s “Supermassive Black Hole”. This song was fun, again featuring the impressive guitar, harmonica and vocal solos of the falsetto singer from the first song- but the whole piece was a bit messy. Tuning and tempo issues were noticeable but not distracting throughout the song, and the set ended with a bang.
Next up were the stylishly dressed singers of Berklee’s Pitch Slapped (Boston, MA). With their men in a uniform black tie and vest combo and girls in more liberal but tasteful variations of black, white and grey dresses, Pitch Slapped opened with “Waiting on the Other Side”. The first thing you notice about this group’s music is the textured arranging and tight sense of tuning which persevered through most of the set. This song utilized simple but effective choreography and blocking notions and showcased a great soloist. Their second song, Kelly Clarkson’s ”Because of You” started off with less committed dynamics and arranging than the first song, but picked up quickly with a great overall dynamic contour, chilling use of silence and a lovely solo. Their final number was the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It To The Streets”. While the cheesy choice of “doo-bie” as the opening syllable in this arrangement was off-putting, the number was a strong closer. The arrangement wanted more mid to low voices to be present throughout, but Will Makar delivered a fine and professional solo. I will confess that this closer (save for the incredible outbursts of the ladies riffing in groups) was a little safe, but Pitch Slapped delivered a very strong musical and visual performance.
The next group to perform was the Buffalo Chips from SUNY Buffalo. This all male group appeared on stage in blue shirts with black vests and white ties, and started with a version of Bruno Mars’ “Grenade”. This arrangement started smoothly and delicately, but didn’t develop much out of that. The percussion was solid and the solo was committed to the lyrics, but the song had no contour and was a timid start to the set. They followed that up with a rather sleepy cover of Coldplay’s “Lovers In Japan”- another interesting and textured arrangement that was performed a bit too perfectly, and to the detriment of the emotional content. Again, there weren’t enough dynamic contrast to keep it engaging, but still pleasant to listen to. The final number was a cover of the Script’s “Breakeven”, which suffered from the same lack of dynamic drive. The soloist, however, was easily the best from their set and the arrangement was again full of ideas that wanted to be more musically developed. This was a strong set from the Chips, but perhaps a bit too mellow to demonstrate a real passion to win.
After the Buffalo Chips came the first and only all-female group of the evening, the South region Champions the Florida State University Acabelles. These ladies wore a simple outfit of dark jeans, black long sleeved shirts and pink Chucks. Their first song was a combination of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”, and two songs from A Goofy Movie, “Stand Out” and “Eye 2 Eye”. This song showed off a great core sound and beautifully deliberate choreography. Their transitions from song to song were seamless as they moved from song one into an emotional cover of “Impossible”. Again, more meaningful choreography choices from the Acabelles beautifully supported the passionate (if at times a bit frantic) singing. The final song in their set was a warm, feminine arrangement of Katy Perry’s “Firework”. This song again demonstrated great polish and purpose, with great tuning, a theatrical (but tasteful) sense of commitment and a lovely solo. (It also bears mentioning that this final song showed off the work of the group’s incredible bass section.) It was a great closer to a polished set full of beautiful, in-tune singing and loads of emotional commitment to the material.
Following the Acabelles was a short intermission, after which we were treated to a song from the set of the ICHSA Champions, Douglas McArthur High School PFC (San Antonio, TX). This large mixed group was dressed the most like a show choir in sparkly black dresses and vests and ties. This group made it clear almost immediately why they were Friday night’s champions. Their cover of Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” showed off a rich, textured and rhythmic arrangement, fantastic dynamic contrasts, a gorgeous descant and a killer solo. They supported their beautiful singing with effective isolations in the choreography that made for an extremely impressive number. The song was emotional gem, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt a bit teary as the piece developed.
Getting us back into the college competition were the guys from the all-male Stereotypes from Washington University in St. Louis. These guys literally bounded on stage dressed in all black with white belts and multicolored ties. They opened their set right off the bat with an energetic and dynamic cover of “Holding Out For A Hero”. Soloist and arranger Dithu Rajamaran lead the charge as the men powered through this energetic opener, never letting up on commitment in their faces, bodies and singing. The second song, an almost choral take on Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know”, was full of engaging and rhythmic arranging, a sincere solo and more stirring emotional commitment from the group members. The final song, John Legend’s “If You’re Out There”, showed once and for all that these guys were competing to win. A commanding solo presence lead a performance of this song that can at times be a bit cheesy, creating authentic and engaging moments the whole way through. Their closing picture was of the guys all in a line such that their ties made a rainbow, and the impressive execution of their choreo and singing had the audience applauding in standing ovation 8 bars before they’d even finished their set.
The Stereotypes were followed by the UK Champions, Cadenza (Cambridge, UK). This small group came on stage in personalized and stylish all black and began to sing Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. While their music was reasonably tight, their performance was a bit too mellow to carry the adventurous spirit of MJ, and the soloist (while sounding lovely) wandered about the stage as if he wasn’t sure where he was. There second song was a rich, harmonically challenging piece that called on their jazzy roots, and they ended with a cover of “Holding Out For A Hero”. Unfortunately, this one lacked the energetic focus of the version we’d heard one set before, and we were left with a pleasant if forgettable set of songs.
Finally came the all-male BYU Vocal Point (Provo, UT). This energetic group of guys won this whole competition back in 2006, and bounded on stage prepared to do it again. Their four song set was upbeat, well-planned and engaging- they started with a solid cover of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, complete with most of the original choreography. They followed it up with a classy, groovy cover of a Michael Buble tune, “Meglio stasera” and a warm, resonant ballad take on the traditional hymn “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”. Their final song was a bouncy, fun and wild “Jump, Jive And Wail” which for me secured them a spot in the top 3. A strong performance from Vocal Point, but one that we have perhaps all seen before.
At this point in the show, the judges departed to deliberate while we were treated to a short set of stellar singing from German quintet, vocaldente. Their comedic timing was spot on as they sang songs from George Michael, Wheatus, Footloose and more. Always cheerful and always musically sensitive, vocaldente charmed away the thirty or so minutes it took the judges to come up with their awards.
My predictions for the show were as follows:
2. Pitch Slapped
3. Vocal Point
Outstanding Arrangement: “Firework” by the Acabelles
Outstanding Soloist : “A Change is Gonna Come” by the Melodores
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Vocal Point
Outstanding Choreography: The Acabelles
The actual results were as follows:
1st: Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped
2nd: Brigham Young University Vocal Point
3rd: Vanderbilt University Melodores
Outstanding Arrangement: Dithu Rajamaran of the Washington University Stereotypes for "Holding Out For A Hero"
Outstanding Choreography: The Melodores
Outstanding Soloist: Jake Hunsaker of Vocal Point for "Meglio Stasera"
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Tanner Nilsson of Vocal Point
Regardless of the outcomes, this was a fantastic show with more than three groups being good enough for top spots. A huge congratulations to Varsity Vocals and all of the competing groups for putting on such an amazing show!
About the author:
Christopher Diaz spent three years as music director of Florida State University’s All-Night Yahtzee, during which time the group appeared in the ICCA Finals for three consecutive years, and he was honored to be named Outstanding Soloist twice. He has won numerous other awards over the years, including Best Arrangement at the 2007 SoJam A Cappella competition, and a 2010 CARA nomination for Best Mixed Collegiate Arrangement. Christopher has served as a scholastic coordinator for the Alliance for A Cappella Initiatives, through which he was competition manager of the 2008-2010 SoJam festivals, as well as clinician and coach. He is the co-founder of the Mouth Off! podcast, and is currently an active member of CASA as a program manager.
photo credit: Ross Leung (www.rossmedia.com)