HomeConcert Review: ICHSA Finals, 4.23.10

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On Friday, April 23, the New York Society for Ethical Culture was filled with a nervous energy that only mass amounts of teenagers and their parents could bring. The audience was all abuzz as we awaited the 2010 International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA) to begin and have the chance to hear the ten best high school a cappella groups in the nation.

The lights lowered and the evening’s emcee, Dave Brown of Mouth Off, walked on stage. He explained the nature of the competition and proper clapping techniques so each group would not go over their time limit and quickly got the competition ball rolling. The ten competing groups were made up of each ICHSA Semifinals winners and four groups from the ICHSA Wild Card Round. The night’s competitors in order were:

Soul’d Out from Wilsonville High School in Wilsonville, OR
Tonal Combustion from Gordon Central High School in Calhoun, GA
Vocal Forte from Haddon Heights Baptist Regional School in Haddon Heights, NJ
Enharmonic Fusion from DeKalb High School in DeKalb, IL
The Jewel Tones from Marblehead High School in Marblehead, MA
Crimson from Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, CO
Limited Edition from Port Washington High School in Port Washington, WI
The 18 Wheelers from The Wheeler School in Providence, RI
The Town Criers from Weston High School in Weston, MA
The CODAS from Clarkston High School in Clarkston, MI

Soul’d Out, a mixed group and the Northwest champions, filed on stage in what quickly became my favorite outfits of the night. Their all-black ensemble with splashes of teal, down to matching shoes for the ladies, embodied the mixture of fun and professionalism this group brought to the stage.

Their first song, Queen’s “Somebody to Love”, started the night off with a very strong solo, lots of energy, and choreography that included a little air guitar and two young men carrying the female soloist. Next was Mika’s “Happy Ending”. This was my favorite piece of Soul’d Out’s set, highlighted by a soloist who had a very surprising maturity both vocally and in stage presence. The choreography was much more simple than the first song but it was the “a little bit of love” section at the end of the song that was musically most impressive. Then the group surprised us with a little booty shaking as their final selection, “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine” began. It had some of the most creative choreography of the night with a mixture of pseudo-psychedelic moves and step touches. The group definitely ended their set on a high note with an incredibly energetic “Let the Sun Shine” breakdown that finally looked like the group let their “hair” down and just had some fun.

Next was Tonal Combustion, another mixed group, that our wonderful emcee said likes to describe themselves as an “a cappella team”.  With the gentleman in silver and black and the ladies in navy dresses, the group definitely had the shiniest outfits of the night. Their four song set was highlighted by very clear and well-done percussion, an innocent and gleeful energy, and some clever and appropriate arrangements. The first song of the set, “Blame it on the Girls”, was an adorable group duet between the guys and girls of the group with the ladies taking the spotlight, and their second song, “Pony It‘s OK“ was highlighted by some really great percussion. But their last two songs, One Republic’s “Apologize” and Foreigner’s “Cold as Ice”, were their standout pieces. Their simple choreography on “Apologize” was the most effective of the entire set and the young lady on “Cold as Ice” gave one of the best solo deliveries of the night. As a Southerner myself, I was quite proud of what this Georgia group brought to the stage.

Wild card group Vocal Forte was up next. This mixed group arrived on stage in gender neutral black pants, black button down shirts, and matching ties. The group brought some of the best and some of my favorite arrangements to the stage as well as an amazing blend and professional energy. As an audience member, you could definitely tell that those kids were there to sing….scratch that. They were there to SANG.

Their first song, “Falling” by Alicia Keys, was a full and gorgeous arrangement with a surprisingly rich solo and some back up harmonies that could blow many a college group out of the water. Next was a “Sunshine Medley” made up of “I Can See Clearly Now” originally by Johnny Nash, Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocket Full of Sunshine”, and “I’m Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves. It was a not-so-serious group solo that continued the gorgeous blend and full arranging style from their first song. Then they “oo-ed” into the standard “Over the Rainbow”, what I thought would be a beautiful and sentimental ending to an almost perfect set. However, they switched it up into “Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked, quickly becoming one of the most memorable songs of the night. A light, pretty, and not so “belty” solo on the top helped embody the hopefulness and meaning of the two songs. You could definitely tell throughout their set that Vocal Forte knows what their strengths are and capitalizes on them and I really enjoyed that almost gospel choir sound they brought to the stage.

Another wild card group, Enharmonic Fusion, followed. While the ladies donned all black dresses, the gentlemen all wore a matching tie and vest combination. What was interesting about this group is that they are actually the all-female and all-male groups from DeKalb High School smooshed into one super group. With this came a pretty impressive male and female percussion duo that I could not take my eyes off of. Definitely two of the most animated young people in the whole competition.

Their set very clearly showed an incredible amount of rehearsal, especially with mics, simple but effective choreography, and some pretty awesomely seamless transitions. The arrangements, especially that of their first song, showed an incredibly proficient use of all of the voices available. While, the solos/duets of their entire set and especially the last two songs, “Gone” by Ben Folds and “Stolen” by Dashboard Confessional, remained impressively sweet and thoughtful. The staging of “Stolen” with little to no movement by the group while leaving the spotlight on the male and female duet was simply beautiful and that innocence behind the lead was quite refreshing. Somehow Enharmonic Fusion managed to take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster with songs that would seem to need a little more life experience behind them and did so quite successfully.

If there was one group that simply oozed stage presence, it was The Jewel Tones. They came bounding on stage in all back with solid color ties of all different hues and were there to put on a show, not just a set.  The first song, “Cecilia”, showed off how truly fun and goofy they are complete with fist pumping and a fake guy-on-guy kiss filling the hall with laughter. Then we were introduced to a sound circle, a moment of complete improvisation within a group, the most memorable part being the percussion.

The Jewel Tones then brought it all the way down with Sara Bareilles’ “Gravity”. While in my opinion the song itself was a little mature for the group, the soloist carried it with a beautiful belt and warm tone and the touching choreography in which she was completely enveloped by the group allowed for its success. A joke was the transition into a final group solo-ed song with one young man very impressively riffing and scatting as I have never heard a high school student do before. As an audience member, you couldn’t deny that The Jewel Tones belong on stage.

The first half was rounded out by the only all-female group of the competition, Crimson. Not only were they the only all-female group, they were something completely different than anything that graced the stage. As the smallest group, only seven young ladies, each member got to have their own mic and each wore their own interpretation of a black and red color scheme. Their four song set made up of Christina Aguilera’s “Come On Over”, En Vogue’s “My Love (Never Gonna Get It)”, The Beatles’ “Yesterday”, and the classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was like watching The Celtic Women infused with The Spice Girls., with solid vocals and very rehearsed choreography.

Each young lady in Crimson danced in heels - something I don‘t even think I can do, committed facially, and seemed like they had been on the stage their entire lives. As the music director of an all-female group, I was thoroughly impressed with the solo and percussion delivery throughout their set, especially VP where each of their three percussionists brought an equally great performance. Overall I felt more or less like I was watching a professional performance group rather than a small high school group. They knew exactly where to go and how to command the stage and their “big ending” of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” definitely closed the first half with a bang.

The first group after intermission made me feel like I was in an episode of “The Sing-Off”. Limited Edition stepped on stage in varying outfits with a general color scheme of green. Their scarves, argyle sweaters, and trendy dresses seemed reminiscent of that little show we all watched a few months back.

But as a whole, Limited Edition also brought the most consistent solo performance of the night and the first time any group seemed to abandon all nerves and just had a good time. Their first soloist on “Mayberry” by Rascal Flatts had amazing strength and power that I didn’t expect to come out of him and the upbeat song allowed for Limited Edition’s energy to bound from every wall in the hall. It was followed by an incredibly enchanting female soloist and contrasting piece that capitalized on the notion of beauty through simplicity, and then a funky, fun reggae song that was a nice break from the solemnity of the preceding song. But it was their last song, John Legend’s “If  You’re Out There” that really set this group apart. The soloist was more than stellar, the arrangement employed beautifully complicated harmonies, percussion was on point, and the group as a whole had an incredible emotional commitment that even most collegiate groups lack. It was, in fact, one of the only time’s that I thought a group could give some of the ICCA competitors a run for their money.

Now I will have to say that I arrived at the hall most excited to see the next competitors. After their appearance on Sing Six: Sunny Side Up, I was ready for The 18 Wheelers to bring it, and that’s exactly what they did. The group wore black from the waist down and solid tops of all colors. They started their set with Michael Buble’s “Everything”. It was cute and catchy while the choreography tastefully toed the cheesy line. The young man on solo gave a solid Buble-esque delivery and I distinctly remember his being one I want to hear in a few years as it matures into its full potential. Then a fairly thin, shaggy-haired young man stepped to the front to sing the next piece which I believe was “Love‘s Divine” by Seal. As far as appearances are concerned, I did not expect much, but as soon as he opened his mouth, my jaw dropped. The voice of a 25-year old gorgeously and effortlessly floated out of this high schooler’s mouth ending in a complete shock to my system until he’d crack a smile or do a funny little dance move and I remembered he was probably on 16 or 17 years old.

The set continued with another great performance in Duffy’s “Mercy”. While I often roll my eyes at this song, The 18 Wheelers really brought the edgy performance I expected after listening to their Sing track. With a rapper/percussionist and yet another wonderfully mature solo who basically gave a performance well beyond her years, the energy, playful choreography, and big choir section at the end of the song seemed to put the perfect 18 Wheelers stamp to the end of a great set.

If you were ever looking for the epitome of a goofy guy group whose main goal was just to have fun and entertain the audience, then you would definitely find it in The Town Criers. This entirely student-run group, as our wonderful emcee pointed out, easily brought the energy and comedy that only an all-male group can. They started their set with a pretty hilarious tourist skit while singing the aca-classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and donning Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts, and fanny packs. One young man started and then the stage was quickly rushed with Town Criers from all areas of the auditorium. While being goofy, tight harmonies and a solid solo performance, one of my favorites of the night, did allow for the gentlemen to be taken seriously.

To completely contrast from their first song, next was “All the Above”. Buttons flew everywhere as the guys ripped their Hawaiian shirts open to reveal matching black “I <3 NY” t-shirts. Besides the button explosion, this performance was highlighted by the tons of charisma The Town Criers brought to the stage and a strong raspy rap that rivaled no other during the night. They ended the set with a similar urban feel with a mash up of “Love is Gone”, “Come Alive”, and Kevin Rudolf’s “Let it Rock”. This very clever arrangement was of course topped off with fist pumps and a more comical rap delivery by two young men as well as beautifully tight harmonies on the final “We’ll make you come alive”. By the end of their set I was completely and in disbelief that they had put the whole thing together by themselves and impressed with their self-driven creativity.

The night ended with Great Lakes champs, The CODAS. They walked on stage in black dresses for the ladies and blue shirts with yellow ties for the gentlemen while quickly placing their props in the appropriate places on stage. They started with the Imogen Heap aca-favorite “Hide and Seek” whose harmonies could seem ambitious for many a high school group but were pulled off quite successfully. It was then followed by the incredibly emotionally driven “Bring Me To Life” by Evanescence highlighted by a more than capable soloist. But it was their last song about the happiest place on Earth, the Magic Kingdom, that was most memorable.

This Michigan group added a little Florida flair with Disney t-shirts, Mickey Mouse towels and bags, and even one young man quick changing into those iconic red shorts and Mickey Mouse hands. It was a fun and cheerful reminder of the youth that had been on the stage the whole night and leaving it utterly impossible to not crack a smile.

As the judges were shooed backstage, Dave Brown welcomed the all-female CAL group Treble to the stage to perform while we awaited the judges’ decision. I, personally, had Vocal Forte, Limited Edition, The 18 Wheelers, and The Town Criers amongst my top performers of the night. I thought The Town Criers would take best choreography and Vocal Forte would take best arrangement for either “Falling” or “Defying Gravity”. I was in a toss-up for best percussion and had a few choices for best solo including the young lady from Soul’d Out for “Happy Ending, the young man from Limited Edition for “If You’re Out There”, the young man from The 18 Wheelers on “Love‘s Divine”, and the young lady from The 18 Wheelers that sang “Mercy”. After deliberation, the results were as follows:

Outstanding Choreography: The Town Criers for their whole set and Soul’d Out for “Aquarius”
Outstanding Arrangement: Vocal Forte for “Defying Gravity”
Outstanding Percussion: Nik Eden from Limited Edition for “Mayberry”
Outstandin Soloist: Nolan Neu from The Town Criers for his rap in “All the Above” and Lucy Winn from Soul’d Out for “Happy Ending”

3rd: The Town Criers
2nd: Vocal Forte
1st: Limited Edition

Overall, having not been introduced to a lot of high school a cappella, I was thoroughly impressed with every group that stepped foot on that stage Friday night. I continuously have heard that it was the best ICHSA Finals to date, and I believe it. Seriously, collegiate groups, you want these kids in your group yesterday!

Congratulations to all of the winners and to all of the competitors for getting this far! It was an incredibly impressive show.

About the author:
Lauren 'LoLo' Barreiro is a senior music major at Florida State University with an emphasis in voice. She has been a member of the award-winning all-female group AcaBelles since her freshman year at FSU and just finished a year-long term as the group's music director.

Thanks to Ross Leung for the use of his photo of Limited Edition. Check out http://icca.rossmedia.com for photos of both finals concerts.