ICCA Northeast Semifinal at Symphony Hall

Event Reviews

This review is co-authored by A Cappella Blog Production Manager Mike Scalise and A Cappella Blog Regional Coordinator Irene Droney.

On Sunday March 23rd, the Northeast Semifinal of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella was held at the historic Symphony Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. Ten groups, the top two from each Northeast Quarterfinal, competed for the title of Northeast Semifinal Champion and a chance to compete at the International Finals in New York City. Before the review, let’s begin with a summary of the event.

Competitors:
The Berklee College of Music CharlieChords
The Harvard Opportunes
Hofstra University Sigma'cappella
The New York University Mixtapes
Northeastern University Distilled Harmony
Emerson College Acappellics Anonymous
The SUNY Potsdam Pointercounts
SUNY Purchase Choral Pleasure
The Northeastern University Nor'easters
The Vassar Devils

Guest Performer:
2014 ICCA Champions, Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped

Irene Droney:The first group to perform at Symphony Hall was The Nor’easters. They took the stage clad in all black, looking like a force to be reckoned with and began their set in a triangle formation. They opened their set with “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You” by James Arthur. They started off with a lot of power augmented by extremely strong solos that gave this whole song a unique energy. The great teamwork in the rhythm section was particularly noticeable during this powerhouse opener.

Mike Scalise: The vocals were incredibly clear and there was a lot of energy emitting from the group. I wasn’t sure if this was a testament to the group or the Symphony Hall acoustics, but me thinks it was a bit of both. The group worked in a good amount of choreography for the selection, which included “stop” hand gestures and movement around the stage. It was a great start to the show.

Irene Droney: They transitioned then into a quiet and beautifully tender introduction to Jessie Ware’s “Say You Love Me.” The lead in this song was gorgeously emotive and the group followed suit. There were a few noticeable blend issues in the beginning with the treble voices but this was resolved by the time they had built to a huge, full sounding choral climax.

Mike Scalise: This performance started out slow and low and eventually grew into a rich and powerful display of vocals. The backing vocals remained full throughout the song and I believe the solo actually got better as the song progressed, hitting all of the right notes and conveying the emotion of the song. The group had a mixture of choreography. At one point, the members formed a semicircle on the stage and looked to me as if each person were just in the zone—individually singing to and engaging the audience.

Irene Droney: The Nor’easters transitioned very smoothly into Beyoncé’s “Mine” which served as a transition piece into their closing song “Elastic Heart” by Sia. The percussive beginning was very cool but started off a little off pitch. As the arrangement filled out, though, this became less noticeable. The heartbeat effects in this song were very well done and added a lot to the feel of the arrangement. The end of the set incorporated a lot of the percussive elements that has been present through out making for a very powerful and effective close to the strong set.

Mike Scalise: Everything came together perfectly in this song—the vocals sounded great and complemented the diverse choreography, which included marching on stage, raising and lowering hands, forming a complete outward-facing circle on stage, and other movements that jived well with the VP and rest of the performance. Great way to round out the set.

Irene Droney: The second group of the evening was The Mixtapes in purple and black. The began with a spooky, ethereal sounding treble introduction to Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” which was augmented soon by a fun, sassy lead. The arrangement was simple but featured some lovely and unexpected harmonies on the chorus especially.

Mike Scalise: The soloist for this song was an unimposing looking guy with a surprisingly powerful voice. The group started lined up diagonally across the stage and the choreo ultimately led the group into a semicircle. Good sound all around, though the group sound wasn’t as pronounced overall as I would have liked.

Irene Droney: The Mixtapes transitioned seamlessly into “Wicked Games” by The Weekend. Although the transition was smooth, it seemed like they encountered some pitch issues at the start. I noticed that this group made great use of the large space in their choreography, which was definitely nice to see.

Mike Scalise: Very dynamic movements on stage during the second song—members walking across the stage, forming two groups facing one another, leaning in and out. The sound itself was a little pitchy in my opinion, but they grew more focused and intense as the song progressed.

Irene Droney: A very strong bass carried the group into their next song “Feeling Good.” I had some trouble hearing the soloists for a little bit here and this made some blend issues in the song especially apparent. The highlight of this group’s set for me was their take on “Thinkin Bout You” by Frank Ocean. The arrangement featured a really interesting, layering part that showed off a lot of excellent voices in the group. The soloist was also nicely expressive and had an impressive falsetto.

They finished off their set with a Justin Timberlake medley including “Suit and Tie” and “Pusher Love Girl” and featuring a powerful female, belter on the lead. Although it sounded rushed at times, it was a fun, energetic way to end their set and the ending was extremely tight.

Mike Scalise: The Mixtapes closer featured so many dance moves that I felt like I was watching a ballroom dancing class. The sound was good. The group finished the song and their set with a punch out toward the audience before a clean cut off to finish up strongly.

Irene Droney: Distilled Harmony took the stage next wearing all black. They started off their set with a bang, beginning with “Break Free” by Ariana Grande. The solo was very emotive and powerful from the start and had some amazing high vocal trills. There were some blend issues, particularly in the treble voices but this may have been nerves because as the set got going, these issues became less apparent.

Mike Scalise: The vocals for this first song were outstanding—the soloist hit all of the high notes with incredible control and sounded great. In addition, the backing vocals and VP were solid and complemented the solo nicely. Great start to their set.

Irene Droney: The second song of their set started off with a lovely, soft tenor opening to “Weights and Measures” by Dry the River. The blend was noticeably better in this song, especially from the males who created a really nice, round sound that the group was able to work off of. They sounded solid and well rehearsed throughout the duration of this song. The ending also featured a pretty and airy descant soprano part that added a lot to the arrangement.

Mike Scalise: Group started out in a triangle, and began to disperse to ultimately form two groups on stage and sang passionately to one another. Really nice sound on this one.

Irene Droney: The next song, “You Got Me” by Ingrid Michelson, began with the soloist walking through the group looking almost as though she was waking them up. A male soloist then joined the female. They worked very well together and the arrangement had a definite musical theater feel to it. The arrangement also featured an interesting trumpet vocal effect which added to the fun feel of the set.

Mike Scalise: After the initial theatrics of the lead rousing everyone, there was quite a bit of movement with members crossing each other on stage and the soloists moving to the front of the stage to sing to the audience. The group separated into three bunches on stage and sang “Ah” syllables that were loud and clear. Backing vocals throughout the song were superb.

Irene Droney: Distilled Harmony transitioned smoothly into their closing song, “Timebomb” by Tove Lo. The major issue I had with this entire set was the pacing. They frequently sounded rushed throughout their set and it was especially evident in this song. The close of the set was very big and powerful however with homages to the rest of the songs incorporated into it. They ended on a very climactic note which was a great way to close this fun, sweet, energetic set.

Mike Scalise: The group started their final song with members together in the middle of the stage but in two groups with their backs to each other, then quickly turning toward the audience. Very uniform movements throughout this song, including stomps and kneels on stage. The oloist was very good and really into the performance. They wove in “Break Free” briefly. The group completed its performance by approaching the front of the stage to create a wall of sound for a really strong finish.

Irene Droney: Next up was Choral Pleasure. Wearing black and red with team jackets, they started off their set with “Trashing the Camp.” I must admit, I was not excited by the prospect of this song but they surprised with some great blend, nice dynamics, an interlude of “Jungle Boogie” and animal noises which definitely kept things interesting.

Mike Scalise: The guys started this song, then the women joined in. They started slow and low and then got a little louder and faster. The choreo included dancing, hip thrusts, and air guitars and trombones to put together a really engaging opening number.

Irene Droney: The next song in their set was “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic which featured three female soloists that had some lovely harmonies. This transitioned into “Am I Wrong” by Nico and Vinz. The arrangement was rather empty sounding but the group had a lot of energy despite this. The arrangement transitioned into Ke$ha’s “We Are Who We Are” which featured a very smooth sound in the alto line.

Mike Scalise: This mashup featured a number of soloists who were each good, but the backing instrumentation and visual presentation overall left me wanting more.

Irene Droney: The next song in their set was “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield. This started off as a solo without any accompaniment and the group slowly was added in. They had really solid pitch and pacing throughout this song but I could not help but to think that the arrangements weren’t at the same level as the other groups’, despite the group itself performing them well.

They ended their set with, debatably, the biggest crowd pleaser of the day’s competition; “Let’s Get It Started” by The Black Eyed Peas. They utilized a lot of fun choreography including break dancing and were super high energy throughout the song as they were throughout their whole set.

Mike Scalise: “Unwritten” featured full backing sound and decent VP. The solo was good but a little pitchy at times. They formed a semi-circle with girls on one side and guys on the other. At the end, the group members looked as though they were leaving before the final turn into a bit of “Let’s Get It Started” at which point the group really cut loose on its vocals and got the crowd invested with some cool dance moves.

Irene Droney: The next group up was The Vassar Devils. Wearing grey, red and black, they looked cohesive but not excessively matching which was a nice choice. They began with gorgeous harmonies and huge sound with Walk The Moon’s “Iscariot”.

Mike Scalise: The Vassar Devils opener featured a good level intensity and they made the most of some minimalist choreography, starting in a semi-circle, leaning forward and backward as the song progressed.

Irene Droney: The Devils transitioned into “Cough Cough” by Everything Everything which featured an emotive solo and some cool vocal effects. This song didn’t pack as much of a punch for me as I was expecting. The choreography looked a little bit unrehearsed to me but that could easily come from performing in an unfamiliar place. The soprano was especially impressive throughout the set, singing some extremely high notes while maintaining a great blend.

Mike Scalise: Good staging for this song with the soloist singing on her own and the rest of the group clustered to one side of the stage. Really good solo work here, and the group vocals were excellent to boot.

Irene Droney: Next up was an original song called “Nothing”. This song was so emotional and the tone of the solo conveyed that with beautiful perfection.

Mike Scalise: The Devils made a bold choice to bring an original song to competition, and I thought that it really paid off in this instance by giving them a unique, memorable song that they could connect to on a level that no other group could really match at this semifinal. Outstanding song.

Irene Droney: Using their first song as a transition piece, they began “Time Machine” originally performed by Ingrid Michelson. This arrangement was very innovative and interesting to listen to and featured some great power belting from some of the women in the group. They ended their set with the rest of “Iscariot” which was a really interesting bookend for their set. This group sounds especially good on big choral parts and this arrangement helped them excel with that. I liked how fluid the set was, incorporating all the songs from the set, throughout the set making it very cohesive as a performance. All in all, I was expecting a little more power from this group but they absolutely took some innovative risks that paid off in a big way.

Mike Scalise: “Time Machine” started with short, quick movements on stage, like tremors. The vocals were superb--great clear, crisp sound that captured the attention of the entire audience, and I liked the way that they tied things together to create a really cohesive set.

Irene Droney: The last group before intermission was The Harvard Opportunes, looking very sharp with the men in suits with pink ties and the women in black dresses with pink belts. They began with “Shut Up and Dance With Me” by Walk the Moon. It sounded a little bit rushed but they had a lot of fun energy.

Mike Scalise: This was a good start, though at this stage of the night, I would have hoped for an opener that popped a little more. Good vocals and choreo to start off.

Irene Droney: They began their next song, “1+1” by Beyoncé, with a cool percussive intro and a really powerful, full sounding lead. They utilized simple choreography which augmented the song nicely without overpowering it. I noticed that some of the vowels sounded over-darkened at times but overall the blend was solid.

Mike Scalise: Good solo on this one. A lot of “doo” syllables and the backing vocals were full and clear. The group wove in pieces of “Crazy in Love” really effectively. Mashups have grown more and more common in a cappella in recent years, particularly since Pitch Perfect and this was an example of using that dynamic just right to add depth to the song and help differentiate the group’s performance.

Irene Droney: They finished their set with a Beatles medley which included “In My Life”, “Paperback Writer”, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Let It Be,” and “Something.” There was great energy through this medley, especially from the women. The arrangements weren’t particularly innovative but they were crowd pleasers and the group performed them well. Some of he stand out parts of this medley were the lovely solo on “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and the strong, driving bass line throughout the entire thing. They ended on a big, climactic with a beautiful chord at the end of “Let It Be”.

Mike Scalise: Nice medley to round out this set and capture a lot of different emotions and style of performance to cap off their performance.

Irene Droney: The first group post intermission was Sigma’cappella, wearing black blue and white as they took the semifinals stage. They began their opening medley with an eerie, whispering beginning to “Voices” by Disclosure. The introduction was so interesting but the arrangement quickly became repetitive despite the strong lead. They transitioned into “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse which had sassy attitude from the whole group and creative choreography. Then, they began a darkened version of “Come on Over” by Christina Aguilera which served as a transition piece into a slowed down, emotive take on “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley which featured some nice, choreography that helped the group tell their story. The arrangement also featured some very cool, shimmering vocal effects. Another soloist then took on the solo and picked up the pace which culminated in a strong duet between the two.

Mike Scalise: The group started its set with group members crowded around the soloist. They dispersed as the song progressed and had some fancy choreo that included spins, leans in and out, and hip sways. I was really impressed by the way in which the group mixed up its tempo as the song went on to tell a story with real peaks and valleys.

Irene Droney: Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” was the next song in their set which featured a great lead and strong bass as well as some very innovative, creative heartbeat-esque choreography. They then began “Love Me Back to Life” by Celine Dion which began sounding a little bit rushed but the pacing improved as the song continued.

Mike Scalise: The group made a really cool transition at the end of “Crazy in Love” with the group huddled together before they did this heartbeat-like effect, pulsating and squeezing shoulders back and forth at each beat to segue into the next song.

Irene Droney: The group ended their set with “Morning Comes” by Delta Rae which, unsurprisingly for this group, featured some wonderful soloists. I really liked the story telling and the cohesiveness of this group’s song choices. The set seemed to tell a unique and uplifting story of breaking free and finding happiness.

Mike Scalise: I thought the soloist for their final song, “Morning Comes” was very clear and crisp. There was perfect harmony with the backing vocals and, although the choreo was fairly slow, it was perfectly matched for the song. Also, they ended the song and their set with group members lined up with each member’s hand on the member on the shoulder of the next person.

Irene Droney: The next group up was The Potsdam Pointercounts, the first all male group of the evening, wearing grey and blue. They began their set with “I Wanna Get Better” by Bleachers. There was no soloist and they were able to showcase the nice sound that they have as a group during this opening.

Mike Scalise: Strong vocal work all around on this opener—particularly with one of the guys hitting the high notes nicely. The group complemented his efforts full backing vocals.

Irene Droney: The Pointercounts transitioned smoothly into “Love Never Felt So Good” by Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake. Some of these guys had some serious dance moves which were able to be showcased during a “dance break”. This group worked very well together, they were high energy and had some really tight harmonies in their arrangements.

Mike Scalise: Good sound and nice choreography on “Love Never Felt So Good,” including a slick Moonwalk before striking the iconic MJ pose.

Irene Droney: The next song they performed was “Treasure” by Bruno Mars which featured some audience interaction and was a lot of fun. The blend was slightly off in their transition into “Together We’ll Ring in the New Year” by Motion City Soundtrack. The bass line and the solo however, had some very nice, clear moments throughout this song. They transitioned back into “I Wanna Get Better” for their last song which was a nice bookend moment. The arrangement featured an homage to “Baba O’Riley” and had a nice big ending.

Mike Scalise: The Pointercounts delivered a nice performance overall, though I wasn’t sure if it would be enough to place given the caliber of the competition.

Irene Droney: Next up were The CharlieChords, the second all-male group of the night wearing all black with red ties. They began their set with beautiful harmonies in an extremely captivating intro to “I’m A Mess” by Ed Sheeran, which featured some percussive bass and dissonant high tenor voices. The group put forth a big sound and a lot of feeling from this group right from the start that made them so compelling to watch.

Mike Scalise: This group’s sound was deeper than most of the previous groups’. The VP and backing vocals were on point, though the solo left a little to be desired. The group ended this song in an outward-facing circle and moved immediately to their next song.

Irene Droney: They transitioned very smoothly into a beautiful rendition of “Oblivion” by Bastille with a gorgeous, high tenor solo that was so smooth, soft and tender. It was certainly one of my favorite solos of the evening. They also had an “instrumental” interlude which showed off a lot of the complexity that the group is capable of.

Mike Scalise: The sound was good on this song, but didn’t really stand out to me. They did put together some memorable visuals, including group members raising their hands and eventually creating a V-formation on stage.

Irene Droney: The next song in their set was “Chandelier” by Sia which featured a deep, emotive solo in an arrangement that brought an entirely new feeling to the song.

Mike Scalise: This has been a popular song choice this year, and I’m big fan of the original. I thought it was interesting that an all-male group would choose to sing this piece. Although a bit lower-sounding than I expect to hear the song, the guys pulled it off nicely. Great control over the high notes, cohesive, and on key. Throughout the song, the members swayed slowly, at times reached toward the soloist. The song concluded with members dropping their heads and looking down. Great performance.

Irene Droney: They ended their set with “Below My Feet” which was a nice change of pace as it was a little more up-tempo than the rest of the songs in their set. Despite the increase in tempo and volume, they kept just as much feeling, emotion and musicality in this song as the rest of their set, ending it on a high note.

Mike Scalise: The VP stood out to me here. Again, all the components of this performance came together nicely. The overall sound was clean and crisp; the harmonies sounded great. The members looked passionate about the performance, which was actually clear throughout the entire set. I think the group helped revitalize any audience member who had become at all disengaged given that the event was nearing the two-and-a-half hour mark and eight other groups had performed.

Irene Droney: The last group of the night was Acapellics Anonymous, who took the stage clad in purple, grey and black. They had a lot of energy on stage from the start beginning with “These Words” by Natasha Bedingfield. It was a sweet and fun start to the set.

Mike Scalise: I thought this was a good start to the set. The vocal percussionist was outstanding in my view and he even demonstrated a few dance moves for the audience.

Irene Droney: They transitioned into “Cry Me a River” with a cool, dark jazz sound and simple choreography though the group was very theatrical in their performance both in their singing and in their choreography and expression. This song finished with a big, dramatic ending.

Mike Scalise: Fair enough sound on this song. A lot of great visuals here with the group crouching doing a visor motion, and then striking a pose like James Bond pointing a gun. The group marched up to the soloist just before the song ended.

Irene Droney: The group transitioned into “September” by Earth Wind and Fire. They had great blend through this as well as great expression and energy with choreography that was increasing in complexity as the set continued on. They added in another song for the ending which I didn’t quite manage to catch but they didn’t feel as though they meshed very well. They did however, end big and fun just as their whole set was.

Mike Scalise: There was a lot of energy and I thought it was a great way to end their set on a fun and energetic note. In addition, I thought the VP performance was really good. The choreo was equally as good, featuring what looked like steps from the electric slide.

Irene Droney: During the judges deliberation, the 2014 ICCA Champions Pitch Slapped performed some excellent, fun songs including “The Way” and “You Know You Like It,” and they also gave the crowd a beat boxing lesson and master class of sorts which was a great way to keep the audience engaged through the deliberations.

As the judges made their picks, I made my mine for the evening. It was a tough call. There were a lot of very talented groups and every group had some wonderful moments in their set, I came down to a top three and ranked them as such:

1. The Nor’easters
2. The CharlieChords
3. The Vassar Devils

The Nor’easters told a cohesive story during their set and were consistently exciting to watch and very polished and professional while still conveying intense emotion and feeling. The Charlie Chords impressed me so much with their emotional, well-executed set. The arrangements were top notch and the group performed them so well. The Devils were excellent and extremely innovative. I loved the fluidity of their set and their use of an original song. It may be my own bias from seeing them at their semifinal and being such a big fan, but I was expecting more power from them during their set.

Mike Scalise: My picks for the night were:

1. The Nor’easters
2. The Vassar Devils
3. The CharlieChords

Irene Droney: The judges decided and although we had the same top three, ultimately they picked a different order than I did and The Vassar Devils deservingly came out on top with the Nor’easters as the runner up and The Charlie Chords placing third.

Official ICCA Results:

Overall Placement:
1. The Vassar Devils
2. The Nor’easters
3. The CharlieChords

Outstanding Soloist: Dharani Rao of Distilled Harmony for “Break Free”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Fisel Oazi and Hunter LaMar of The CharlieChords for “Below My Feet”
Outstanding Arrangement: Matt Goldstein and Hannah Tobias of The Vassar Devils for the entire set
Outstanding Choreography: Hannah Tobias of the Vassar Devils for The entire set