HomeBlogsjimbobwaay's blogReview: Yale Parents Weekend Concerts, October 29, 2011

At Yale, a cappella means business. Many a cappella enthusiasts may have some sort of familiarity with the storied Yale "program." Fifteen groups on campus compete for new talents every fall, culminating in a month long rush process organized by Yale’s Singing Group Council (a few other groups sing independently), similar to the better known Greek fraternity/sorority rush and pledging processes.

For the members of Out of the Blue, Mixed Company, and The Duke’s Men, a cappella is almost a calling – maybe, even a vocation – for exceptional vocalists. These three groups showcased their talent at two shows on Saturday, October 29 (two of MANY a cappella shows happening that day), during Yale’s Parents Weekend, which also happened to coincide with a freak snowstorm that dropped a little over an inch of slush (snow AND rain… super annoying) on New Haven.

Joining me on the two hour journey via Metro North up from New York City was my friend, John Sullivan, alumnus of the SUNY-Buffalo Buffalo Chips and NYU’s Law School group, Substantial Performance. First on the list for the day was the Out of the Blue show, being held in a charming lecture hall at the Golden Center on the Yale campus. After a filling lunch at Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria on the other side of town (go there for amazing pizza, people… you’ll thank me later), we waited for a cab to take us to the Golden Center for the show. For forty minutes. Basically, chalking it up the snowstorm (and bitchy switchboard operators), it never arrived, so we called another company and within minutes we were picked up and shuttled off to the venue, a good twenty minutes late for the show.

Yale Out of the Blue

Despite our lateness, we were able to snag some seats near the back, and only missed one song ("The Cave" by Mumford and Sons, which I really wanted to hear, since my group, The Red States, is doing it, too.) We sat down and were shocked at the sheer number of singers at the front of the hall – there were 21 members in this group. Later, we found out that this is considered the final show for the group’s seniors (Class of 2012), who only remain members through the rush process, as to have a full group of performers when the new class of "taps" joins. Basically, almost all Out of the Blue members are only in the group for a maximum of three years.

Right off the bat, one of the things I liked the most about this group was how they gave the opportunity for every member to shine in a couple songs. The ladies of "OOTB" each got a chance to solo with their lively and fun cover (arranged by senior Harris Eppsteiner) of Katy Perry’s "Waking Up In Vegas," the song the group was singing when John and I finally arrived. Later on, the men got to show off their skills in the group’s cool and suave rendition of Michael Buble’s "Haven’t Met You Yet" (arranged by junior Andre Shomorony and alumnus Nathan Griffith), a song that has started to get overdone in a cappella circles, but I still haven’t tired of, and OOTB did the song very well.

The four new freshmen and the four departing seniors each got a chance to sing solos at this concert as well. Of note were the talented vocals of freshman Kate Taylor-Mighty, who gorgeously conquered Adele’s haunting ballad, "Chasing Pavements." She will prove to be an exceptional performer over the next few years, and OOTB should be incredibly glad to have her among their ranks.

Two seniors brought the house down with their solo numbers. Departing senior Emmanuel Quartey brought the audience to tears with his stirring execution of Coldplay’s "Fix You," singing with such real emotion. It’s the mark of a real performer when one is able to make their audience "feel something," which he did with such ease. You could tell how much singing with OOTB meant to him. Finally, senior Stephanie Weinraub pretty much killed it with her siiiiick belting in Carrie Underwood’s "Cowboy Casanova," arranged by junior Daniel Reardon and alumna Rebecca Blum. The song suited her so well – I’m glad that it was recorded for their recent album release, 16 Edgewood, because that’s one track I’ll be listening to again and again.

Closing their show was "Higher Love" by Steve Winwood (which I SWORE to John was the Baywatch theme song, but apparently I’m mistaken. Someone appease me and do a mash-up), featuring all of the seniors on solo singing with the group for one final time, step touching and clapping to the end, with all of their alumni sitting in the front row proudly clapping along. All in all, a great show by a very talented group!

After some drinks at a cute little cocktail bar, I proceeded to the Dining Room at Branford College, where the first of two shows done jointly by Yale’s Mixed Company and The Duke’s Men was to happen. Getting there at 8:15 for the 8:30 show, I thought I was going to be early. Little did I know, the line was out the door of the dining hall, down the stairs, and out the door of the building to the courtyard outside. The fire marshal was not letting anyone in because of how crowded it was in there. Luckily with my CASA Ambassador business card/credentials, I got in, and joined the roughly 300+ audience members for a thrilling show.

Yale Mixed Company

First up was Mixed Company. They definitely did not disappoint. Another unusually large co-ed group took to the stage and began their show with their rousing traditional opener, "Hodja," showing off each of their newest members. At the back, were about fifteen Mixed Company alumni, cheering and snapping proudly throughout their "babies’" set. It’s important to note here, that it was great to see such incredible alumni support – never before have I seen a set of aca-alumni so wildly supportive and proud of the current group.

Some of the highlights from Mixed Company’s set in the first show included one song that I’ve never heard done a cappella before, but knew what it was instantly after hearing it. Being that I’m a theatre geek, hearing "Leaving’s Not the Only Way To Go" from the musical BIG RIVER (yay musicals!), sung sumptuously by one of Mixed Company’s newest taps, David Blumenthal, was quite a treat. Mixed Company’s future looks especially bright with talent from their newest taps, two of which shined on their solos: Moriah Rahamim on "Ghost", originally by the Indigo Girls; and Austin Haynesworth on "Danny Boy" (and exquisitely arranged by senior Danny Spector!)

The standout of their set for me was junior Jake Eliasberg’s beautiful solo on their cover of Adele’s "Someone Like You." The arrangement, by senior Daniel Spector, was so full and so gorgeous, and transposed into a key that allowed Eliasberg to show off his very capable nuanced voice on this great song.  The song probably produced one of the best moments of the show, when Eliasberg sang alone on one of the last choruses, with the rest of the backs gradually joining him, and building up to a repeat of the chorus that just oozed pure musicality and raw emotion from every member of the group.

Another fantastic song in their set was Beyonce’s "If I Were A Boy," sung by senior Chloe Sarbib, and outstandingly arranged again by senior Daniel Spector.  What a voice this lady has.  I love when groups stick to a simple "oo" vowel, and don’t muddle up the song with non-sensical syllables that don’t have a purpose. I also love when groups let their backs sing the actual lyrics… in songs like this, the lyrics themselves lend themselves greatly to the meaning of the song and the raw emotion that all of the singers can pull from.

After Mixed Company finished their traditional alumni song closer, "Zombie Jamboree" (perfect for the upcoming Halloween holiday), The Duke’s Men rushed up to the stage, opening with their cover of Rihanna’s "Umbrella", featuring their six new freshman taps. What an arrangement – I remember a couple years ago, when this cover, featuring future Youtube-celebrity Sam Tsui, made its way through the ICCA Northeast circuit, bringing them to the ICCA Finals, complete with award winning choreography by the aforementioned Tsui (at least through their quarterfinal and semifinal competitions… darn those boys of Fermata Nowhere!) which I wish they did at this show!

The Duke's Men of Yale

One of these new freshmen, Derwin Aikens, had a particularly strong debut, with his chance to sing a solo all his own in a stunning rendition of "Motherless Child," a spiritual covered several times by different artists over the last few decades. The Duke’s Men version, originally arranged by an alumnus of the group from the 1980s and rearranged by sophomore musical director (or Pitch, as they call them at Yale) Benji Goldsmith, showed off not only this freshman’s considerable talent, but also their incredible wall of sound and beautiful artistry of dynamics.

The highlight of their set was the gorgeous choral traditional, "Steal Away," sung with such incredible fortitude by sophomore Terrence Chin-Loy. If you ever get a chance to watch The Duke’s Men live, hearing Chin-Loy on solo will give you goosebumps for days. I was floored, mouthing "wow" to fellow audience members around me after hearing him.

A particularly gorgeous arrangement by Benji Goldsmith of "And So It Goes," was another standout. While this song can be staid and overdone by many choral groups, The Duke’s Men put an interesting spin to it, particularly in the cadenza-like ending. But it was the solo, by junior Brandon Hayse, that did it for me – he had this pop inflection in his voice that really made the song much more likeable than it already is. Might I even make a comparison to Scott Hoying, of the USC SoCal VoCals and Pentatonix fame?

Lastly, I wanted to point out the thrilling arrangement, by Benji Goldsmith and junior Alex Caron, of Adele’s "Rolling in the Deep," which closed out their show before the alumni song. Led by the fantastic solo of sophomore Alex Ratner, The Duke’s Men knocked the socks off of the audience, and possibly the audience for the late show, patiently waiting behind the doors to the dining hall. These men proved that Adele songs can be covered exceptionally well by all-male groups without being too kitschy and falling into the traditional all-male stereotype.

If you get a chance to drop into New Haven, try to make your way over to the campus of Yale University. Chances are, you’ll run into one of the many a cappella groups on campus, skillfully performing with great pride in what they do. I can’t wait until I get to hear these groups again, and hear what other campus groups have in store. Good on ya, Yale a cappella!

About the author:
Jim Diego is a current and founding member of the New York City based CAL group, the Red States.  He is a 2006 graduate of the University of Michigan, and four-year member of the co-ed group, Gimble. Jim is also a much sought-for clinician, judge, and critic for visual performance and choreography in a cappella.  He was recently appointed CASA Ambassador for the New York City Metropolitan Area, and can be followed via Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/groups/AcaNewYork or via Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AcaNewYork.