This review was written by ACB Regional Coordinator Irene Droney.
On Saturday February 28th, the Kresge Auditorium at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA welcomed ten a cappella groups from across the northeast for the last Northeast Quarterfinal of the 2015 ICCA season. Before the review, here is a brief summary of the event.
Salem State University SSockappella
The Cornell University Touchtones
The Northeastern University Nor’easters
University of Hartford Uharmonies
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Chorallaries
The Suffolk Ramifications
The Simmons Sirens
The Vassar Devils | Vassar College
The Olin College of Engineering PowerChords
Northeastern University Pitch, Please!
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Resonance
Liquid 5th Productions
The first competing group of the night was SSockappella from Salem State University. Clad in black and orange and wearing just socks on their feet, they started off the evening with a medley of “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White Tees and “Amnesia” by Five Seconds of Summer. It was a fun, high-energy beginning to the set and start to the evening. The bass really carried this arrangement despite some timing and pitch issues as the song went on. They did not seem to recover from these issues as they transitioned into another mash-up of “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark” by Fall Out Boy and “CrushCrushCrush” by Paramore, although this medley featured some great soloists. The third song in the set was an emotional rendition of “Say Something,” originally performed by A Great Big World. The arrangement was simple, pretty, and conveyed emotional. The end of the song paid homage to “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith. The major issue in this piece was blend. The simplicity of the arrangement made it very easy to hear problems like this. There was a very noticeable vibrato in the soprano as well as some issues with staggering breathing throughout this piece. The last song in their set was “All About That Bass” by Megan Trainor. This song featured some really fun and campy choreography and a lead with great stage presence and attitude that made this the highlight of this group’s set.
All around, SSockappella provided a fun start to the night. Something that this group could benefit from would be simplifying their arrangements. They had a lot of medleys, which can absolutely be fun, but during this set it occasionally came across as over complicated. SSockapella’s set was an energetic start to the evening of competition.
Next up were The Touchtones of Cornell University. This all-female group took the stage in black and white looking very sharp. They lead off with Ella Henderson’s “Ghost” and immediately showcased a lovely rounded out sound throughout the group. This song sounded well rehearsed and confident and featured some particularly good work between the bass line and the vocal percussion. The transition into their next song, “When Your Mind’s Made Up” from the musical Once was seamless both in choreography and tone. The arrangement of this song was beautiful and extremely emotive and the group executed this very well, particularly in the large choral sounding chords through the choruses. As the song went on however, the group may have been so expressive that it seemed as though the pitch and tempo were falling off. This made the quiet ending lose some of its tenderness. They again transitioned immediately into their next song, Sia’s “Breath Me.” In this case, I felt that they could have benefitted from a pause for applause to regroup and hear a pitch because the beginning sounded a little uncertain. The choreography also seemed slightly forced and, all in all, the last song of their set seemed to be the weakest.
Overall, The Touchtones had a really nice tone and they picked arrangements that worked very well for their group. They could have benefitted from some restructuring of their set, particularly the addition of breaks and selecting a song to end the set on a higher note.
The third group of the night featured the return of the 2013 ICCA Champions for the first time since their championship win, The Nor’easters of Northeastern University. Looking as fierce as ever, with the women in all black and the men in black pants, white shirts and suspenders, they began their set with Brayton Bowman’s “Jaywalk.” This extremely high-energy opener had a jazzy feel and was such a refreshment for the audience. The choreography was very smooth and really added to the feel of the song. The second song in their set was “Say You Love Me” by Jessie Ware. This song was beautiful with a really gorgeous pure sounding lead accompanied by highly emotive background, especially evident in the choral sounding climax with gorgeous blend. The next song was “Mine” by Beyoncé, which served as transition piece of sorts with the Nor’easters signature homage to Eric Whitacre’s “When David Heard” blended in. The last song of the set was Sia’s “Elastic Heart” which started extremely powerfully and percussively. The beatboxing in this piece was especially cool with an incredibly well done, impressive heartbeat effect. The soloist was so emotive and you could really feel every word of this song because of the raw emotion in her voice. The staging looked great and they ended their set by incorporating pieces and lyrics of the prior songs into the arrangement, which showed a lot of thought and planning and really tied the set together cohesively. They ended on a powerful and positive note.
One thing that I always enjoy about The Nor’easters is their attention to detail. They are a group that consistently tells a cohesive story throughout their competition sets and they did not disappoint this time around.
Next up were Uharmonies, an all female group from the University of Hartford. They took to the stage wearing black dresses with teal shoes and accents. They began their set with a mashup of songs by 90s divas including Lauryn Hill, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. This medley showcased a lot of styles for the group as well as many different soloists, which was a creative idea way to show range in their group. Despite some pitch issues in the beginning, the song ended very solidly. They continued on with a barbershop-esque version of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” by Frankie Valli which was very charming. The blend in this group was strong and it seemed that there was a classical tone to many of the voices. They ended with “Love Runs Out” by OneRepublic. Again, they utilized multiple soloists as well as some nice harmony parts which added excitement and depth to the set despite a lack of dynamic changes. The first soloist seemed as though the piece was slightly out of her range but ultimately, the song was a strong ending to their set.
This group definitely played to their strengths in this set. By using multiple soloists and not overly complicated choreography or arrangements, they were able to deliver a clear, enjoyable set.
The fifth group of the night was The Chorallaries, competing on their home turf, wearing black and red. They started with a really powerful attention-grabbing intro to “Good Girl” originally performed by Carrie Underwood. The tempo picked up as the song continued and it sounded a little rushed as they transitioned into “Addicted to You” by Avicii. The arrangement and solo had a nice jazzy attitude and the chorography supported this well. The next song in their set was “Sweet Talker” by Jessie J. This song was done very well and featured one of my favorite soloists of the night. She had some really well executed vocal runs and a lot of energy that carried the group perfectly. This transitioned into “Shut Up and Dance With Me” by Walk The Moon. This song was so high energy and fun, definitely a crowd favorite however, some of the movement in the group came across as a little bit and potentially could have benefitted from more structured choreography. The next song was “Say You Love Me” by Jessie Ware. This piece seemed to start off a little bit shaky with some apparent key confusion but they quickly got back on track. The song featured a lovely emotive solo and simple expressive choreography. The end of the song also had some incredible stratosphere shattering soprano scatting that was a standout moment of the set. They then revisited “Shut Up and Dance With Me” before moving onto their closer, “Boogie Wonderland” by Earth Wind and Fire. This was a really interesting arrangement with some very cool, complex chords. The end of their set paid homage to the earlier songs in the set which showed cohesiveness.
Overall, The Chorallaries did a great job with their set and despite some pacing issues throughout, they delivered a fun set.
The final group before intermission was The Suffolk Ramifications. This co-ed group took to the stage in all black and began with “Feel Again” by OneRepublic, which was a great choice and showed off a lot of strengths of the group. They seemed to work very cohesively together and sounded well rehearsed. They then moved onto “Roses” by Outkast, a fun throwback for the audience. This featured a very pretty soprano scat introduction and the arrangement was fun and jazzy, a really nice take on the song. Although the soloist had a great attitude during this song, it seemed like the rest of the group wasn’t completely it. They moved on to a well-blended introduction to their last song “Get Away” by Jessie J. The solo was beautiful in this piece and the blend from the group was particularly striking.
This group is very treble heavy and their great blend and balance is definitely a sign of having very strong low voices in the group and homage to how well they work together to make that balance happen. Their closing song was the highlight of what was overall a very well executed set.
The first group after intermission, and taking the ICCA stage for the first time, were The Simmons Sirens. These ladies took the stage in all black with light blue bows. They opened with set with “Mercy” by Duffy. The solo in this piece was excellent. She had great attitude and a lovely, smooth, jazzy voice. The arrangement and choreography of this song were both pretty simple which allowed the solo to shine. There were some noticeable pitch issues as well as some potential microphone issues during a part where a second soloist couldn’t be heard well. Despite this, they had a beautiful choral sounding intro to their next song “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver. The blend and pitch were very nice here but their consonants didn’t always hit at the same time, which caused some messiness in the overall sound. This transitioned into “Youth” by Daughter. This was another gorgeous solo with an extremely emotional and unique tone. The issues in this song seemed to be with blend in the higher voices which didn’t quite match the round sound of the strong bass. This piece transitioned back into “Skinny Love” very smoothly and featured an especially nice descant soprano. They ended their set with a crowd favorite “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars. This piece was super high energy and a really fun way to end the set. They had great attitude throughout the piece despite a rather hollow sounding arrangement. Overall, this was a solid set with the soloists as the shining stars.
Next to take the stage were The Vassar Devils. They were dressed casually with the color theme centering on blues, reds, greys and black. Beginning in an outward facing semi circle, they began with an explosive choral beginning to “Cough Cough” by Everything Everything. Right from the beginning, they showed off what a big, powerful sound they had as a group. Very strong, loud harmonies made up this arrangement which was augmented by strong vocal percussion. They transitioned very smoothly into an original song called “Nothing” by Hannah Tobias and Matt Goldstein, the music director and assistant music director of the group. This was such an interesting, standout creative choice. The song itself was absolutely beautiful and fit in perfectly to their set, it was very smooth and featured a great emotive solo. This group’s sound is absolutely massive in the best possible way and they had extremely tight harmonies throughout. This transitioned into “Time Machine” originally performed by Ingrid Michaelson. Another enormous song, this group seemed to just keep growing and growing and it was completely captivating. They were very theatrical both in choreography and attitude on stage and they had the audience hooked. The ended their set with “Iscariot” by Walk the Moon, another big song with great harmonies and huge dynamics which featured some really lovely choral sounding moments from the group. The last moment of this piece, they put down their microphones and just sang out to the audience. This moment was especially nice and unexpected because after such an enormous, loud performance, this ending added a purity and vulnerability that had not been present in their set to this point.
The Devils put forth what was absolutely one of the best sets of the evening. This group’s big sound was a highlight of the competition.
The penultimate group of the evening was The Powerchords from Olin College wearing blue and black with corsages made of plugs, a very cute choice for the engineering school. They began their set with a very fun, jazzy opening to “That’s Life” originally performed by Frank Sinatra, accompanied by cute choreography. The group used some really fun vocal effects including some brass sounds that fit the vibe of the arrangement perfectly and were a great background for the spunky solo. The second piece was a total change of pace, a really great take on “Haunted” by Beyoncé with a heavier, more rock’n’roll sounding male solo. The stand out parts of this song were definitely the cool, shimmery vocal effects and the strong clear bass, which carried the group and grounded the whole piece. A noticeable issue in this song especially and the transition into the next was being able to hear breathing into the microphones, which was distracting at times. The next song in their set was “Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney in which the group really showed off their blending abilities and some utilized some great dynamic changes, especially at the end. Their closing song was Lady Gaga’s “Gypsy Lights.” The soloist in this piece had really impressive range and the group had a great energy throughout this song. The standout moment of their set came near the end of this song when they brought out glow sticks and the soloist was revealed to be wearing a light up outfit, very fitting for the group.
The Powerchords had great energy throughout their set and they had a big range of different styles in their songs, all done very well which was great to watch.
The last competitors of the evening were the lovely ladies of Pitch, Please! from Northeastern University, gracing the stage in their signature all black with towering, gold glittery heels. The group started off facing the wall and opened with big sound and fierce choreography singing a mashup of “Something Bad” by Carrie Underwood and “Put The Gun Down” by ZZ Ward. The bass and beatboxing were particularly stand out right off the bat, especially cool to see in an all female group. The transition into “Howl” originally performed by Florence and the Machine was slightly awkward potentially because of microphone issues in the beginning but they rallied quickly. The soloist’s presence during this song was absolutely ferocious and the group followed suit and this song was very powerful because of it. The opening of their next song “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt, featured some truly lovely harmonies. The solo in this piece was extremely beautiful and emotionally raw. The dynamics in this song were also very well done. There seemed to be some slight timing issues and some problems with blend but all and all this song was an emotional stunner. The group sped things up again for their closer “Comeback” by Ella Eyre. This song was perfect for this group and featured an intense, sassy power trio of belters and huge energy and fierceness from the whole group. They ended the competition on an extremely climactic high note!
During the judge’s deliberation, Resonance from MIT performed song including “As Long as You Love Me” by Justin Beiber and “Ain’t It Fun” by Paramore. There was also a fun perc off featuring the vocal percussionists from each group. At the end of the deliberations, all the groups got on stage with Resonance and their finale ended up being a huge group performance with all of the competing groups, which was a really fun way to end the night of competition!
Overall, this quarterfinal round was extremely strong with many talented groups but for me, there was a clear top three. My predictions for the night were that The Nor’easters would take first, The Vassar Devils would take second and Pitch, Please! would take third and my predictions proved to be the opinions of the judges as well!
Official ICCA Results:
1. The Nor’easters
2. The Vassar Devils
3. Pitch, Please!
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Beejul Khatri and Kenji Guldner of The Nor’easters for their entire set
Outstanding Arrangement: Matt Goldstein and Hannah Tobias of The Vassar Devils for their entire set
Outstanding Choreography: Hannah Tobias of The Vassar Devils for their entire set