On April 27, 2012, Hunter College Kaye Playhouse hosted the International Championship of High School A Cappella Finals. Before we get to the review, here’s a brief summary of the event:
ICHSA Wildcard Champions 1, Briarcrest Christian High School OneVoice
ICHSA South Champions, Winter Park High School Take 7
ICHSA Mid-Atlantic Champions, Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices
ICHSA New England Champions, Salem High School WitchPitch?
ICHSA Great Lakes Champions, Centerville High School Forte
ICHSA Wildcard Champions 2, Oakland School for the Arts Vocal Rush
ICHSA Wildcard Champions 3, DeKalb High School Enharmonic Fusion
ICHSA Southwest Champions, Douglas MacArthur High School PFC
ICHSA Nortwest Champions, Newberg High School Mezzo Devotion
ICHSA Midwest Champions, Port Washington High School Limited Edition
Guest Group: Pitch Slapped
Emcee: Dave Brown
Sound by: Liquid 5th
Photos from this show are available now on our Facebook page.
The show kicked off with Briarcrest Christian High School OneVoice. The coed group wore black formal duds. They started with Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts.” Really nice, textured solo on this one, that demonstrated one of the most important parts about strong solos in my book--it‘s about far more than just hitting the notes; great leads put on their own, unique inflection, sell the feeling of the song. The second soloist for this song was breathier, and the group constructed some really nice harmonies behind her. Good percussion. Nice dynamic shift into the bridge. I appreciated the effort that clearly went into choreographing and mastering the visual presentation of this piece, but my one pointer for the group o that note would be to try to find ways for its visual presentation to be better integrated into and organic to the music, as opposed to having more stand-alone flourishes at specific points. The piece ended with the soloist singing to one of the guys, setting up for transition to him as the next soloist. I would have trimmed the amount of lead time for that new soloist to wait there, as it telegraphed what was going to happen a little too clearly, but it was still the right idea.
Next up was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” The group made the bold choice to start with an unaccompanied solo, reminiscent of Boston-based Overboard’s version of the song. Nice soft, controlled sound when the backing vocals did come in. This is was a very sensitive piece and it was cool to hear a high schoolers taking on such an ambitious song. Really nice dynamic range and interesting repetitions and harmonic breakdowns as the song unfurled. The piece came to feel less like a lead singing with his backup band, and more like one group consciousness singing the component pieces of a troubled mind. Cool choice for a middle song.
OneVoice wrapped up with “Forever” by Chris Brown. I liked the song selection a lot as piece to facilitate the group letting its hair down, so to speak, and having fun after two more serious numbers. The percussion was very strong here, and the group looked most at ease having fun and dancing to this song. From an audio-visual perspective, coolest moment came when the group members crouched around the soloist, then popped upward on a monster crescendo. That’s exactly the sort of way in which the visual presentation can complement the music and tell a stronger story. Nice transition to the breakdown section where the sound became much more staccato. The finish was a little abrupt—it sort of felt like a fake out, only for the true fake out to be that the song really was done. Nonetheless, this was a fun, high energy closer to leave a great last impression on the crowd.
The second group to compete was Winter Park High School Take 7. It was awesome to see all-female a cappella represented here. The group opened with Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson’s ”Winter Song.” Great song choice, which I haven’t heard much of but is a really natural choice given the vocal instrumentation imbedded in the original recording. Furthermore this is the kind of song only an all-female group can really own—too often, girl groups try to play on the same playing field as the guys, and I maintain it’s not so much that they can’t keep up as it is that the songs don’t fall in their natural wheelhouse—this song is ripe for all-female interpretation. Really nice compound harmonies on the close, piling layer upon layer. Very fluid visual transitions that really fit the music.
The girls made a seamless transition to Adele’s ”Rolling in the Deep.” I love the way this group told a story with these songs—no blowing pitches in between, no waiting for applause to die down, just rolling (no pun intended) into the next segment of their set. Nice full-tilt choreography here, and a really strong soloist who showed maturity in both her restraint and ability to pop on her bigger moments. The girls attacked the stomp-body percussion with gusto. Very nice dynamic fall off after that segment. The group members made dramatic turns to finish with just the soloist facing the crowd, segueing into dramatic, staggered turns to start the third piece.
Next up was John Mayer’s ”Daughters.” While I actually like the idea of interpreting this as an all-female song and more of a first-person narrative about mother-daughter relationships, in terms of song selection, I felt this was the weakest link in the set. We had heard the softer side of Take 7 on “Winter Song” and if they were going to go slow again I would have liked to hear something a little more raw to keep with the group identity. Nonetheless, this one got off to nice visual start with a dramatic play off of the preceding song as the second soloist comforted the preceding soloist. Third soloist and second had a nice interplay between the two of them making the song into a dialectic. Nice moment as the group went choral.
The group made its final seamless transition into Destiny’s Child’s ”Survivor”. Really nice movement on this one, sold full-tilt. There was a piece of this performance that everyone is sure to have remembered, and that I’m pretty confident provoked some polarized reactions: a repetitive chant of “What” on the choruses. No, this wasn’t very musical, and no it wasn’t very pretty. But what sold me on the artistic choice there was that even sitting in the balcony, I could feel the intensity of this moment. Far too often, a cappella groups—particularly young ones—look scared on stage. When you’re yelling what as part of a rhythmic unified whole, you can’t be scared; you can’t help but feel yourself grow more certain, more powerful, and more fired up. This mode of self-motivation is pretty brilliant, and a great way to take the set home. Nice addition of a second soloist on the finish for the two of them to riff off each other. The power bass in the background helped this pop—my only complaint on that note was that I would have liked to have heard it a little more clearly earlier in the song, and to have heard it fade out for a more united communal voice on the wall of sound at the end of the song. It’s a relatively minor quibble. Great power set from Take 7.
Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices performed third. Excellent perc to lead off with Sugarland’s ”Stuck Like Glue.” Such a fun, sweet take on this song. Great lead, and really nice interaction between her and backing solo on the chorus and a second young woman on the second verse. The group managed real a precision of sound, cutting off cleanly on the fall out bits, and also offering up a fuller sound than you’d ever expect to hear from a groups of this age—not just individual stars but every last one of them pulling their weight. Really fun breakdown with five members harmonizing behind a new lead, singing to the first one. As good as this was musically, it was all the more impressive for the polished showmanship at play. Excellent percussion to boot. Wonderful spread out moment on the final crescendo and really fun interplay between paired off group members dancing together. It makes a huge a difference when a group looks like it’s having fun, and the group seemed to be having ball for every moment of this one. Excellent opener.
Next up was Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” The choreography was really strong here with the women up front and dancing perfectly on it. One of the hidden keys to a group like this is having enough group members that some voices can fall out for movement purposes for brief segments of the song without losing a fullness of sound. Really fun brass breakdown from the guys. Fluid transition to a sample of “La Bamba” with a male soloist sliding in the middle and taking over for a verse and chorus. The group was just so dynamic on stage—it was really a joy to watch them. Great poses on the finish.
The group transitioned to ”Go the Distance” from Hercules. It’s a cool message song, in the context of a group singing its ways to the finals of an international competition—and for that reason, I’ll cut them some slack for the Disney song choice (which I would ordinarily balk at). Nice, committed solo, and the lead played double duty, transitioning from there to percussion as a second lead took over. Over the course of the song, we heard from three different soloists, each of whom was good on his won, but the group reached a pretty sublime moment when the three of them stood at the fore together—two singing together, the third on perc as the rest of the group sang in unisons behind them. Really nice artistic decision for the soloist to each of the leads get one last piece of the solo pie at the finish, first unaccompanied, then with the group quite soft behind them, making it much less of an epic finish, and far more about beauty and personal struggle. Excellent finish.
Next up was Salem High School WitchPitch?. The co-ed group took the stage in black, white suspenders, red scarves or ties, and red sneakers on the girls. They started up with a riff off “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz. While the piece was a little silly for my tastes, it was a nice nod to the group’s identity.
Nice transition from there to U2’s ”Vertigo.” Great attitude from the soloist. Very nice choreography with the group moving in unison in ways that fit really nicely with the music particularly in the chorus. The group pulled off some really nice explosions of sound as the piece went on, though I would have liked to have heard a little more of a full sound in general, beyond the soloist and percussionist, who really drove the piece. Really cool visual moment with the group members raising their arms to form tunnels, out of which guys snuck through to join the soloist up front.
The drummer from the preceding song took over on the solo for Beyonce’s “I Was Here.” Nice, dramatic addition of the perc in the chorus to get the song moving. Strong, soulful solo on this one. I dug the interplay between the soloist and a second, female lead as they built some gorgeous harmonies between them. Simply stunning voice on that young woman. Excellent moment as the group members reached out to the crowd in desperation, then fell back as the VP keyed back in. Solid song.
The group members each took a knee for three male leads to start “Here in Your Arms” by Hellogoodbye. Understated, almost ghostly quality to he lyrics here, though the sound grew a little muddled as more voices came in.. Fun tempo shift as the group transitioned into a sample of A-Ha’s “Take on Me,” which included some really cool stop and pose movements—that were very well staged. Overall, WitchPitch? Delivered a nice diversity of sound over the course of this set. If they keep experimenting and continue to develop their identity, I expect we’ll hear much more from this group on the national level in the years to come.
Next out of the chute was ”Centerville High School Forte.” The co-ed group took the stage in purple and black formal attire. They opened on Adele’s “Turning Tables.” Nice clear sound on the solo and lovely harmonies from the group. Nice swell of dynamics on the choruses here. There’s something to be said for simplicity—standing in a simple arc and letting the music speak for itself. I dug it here. I think this was emotionally compelling enough to really work as an opener, against the popular wisdom of starting with something faster. Really nice precision on the bridge with fall outs and unisons from the group. Beautiful, warm chords on the finish.
Forte followed up with David Guetta’s ”Without You.” The soloist started unaccompanied. Great control and richness of sound from him. The group came in softly behind him. Really nice set planning—the slow opening here set up a fluid transition between the songs, while also affording the group room to speed up and develop its sound. A second female started a little soft, but when she kicked into gear she was great. I loved the call for the soloist to trade off—they thrived in really distinct ways from each other, adding a layer of complexity to the song. Leading up to the finish, the group, led by the male lead, wandered toward the female soloist on the lyrics “I am lost [without you],” for a cool dramatic interpretation.
The group closed its set with Parachute’s ”Something to Believe In.” Interesting choice to put a female lead on this on. Nice full, but controlled sound from the group again. Great dynamic build with a clanging guitar part into the crescendo. Fun call and response style bit between the soloist and segments of the group on the chorus. The choreo started to kick in to gear with some interesting transition slide moves. While some spectators might knock the group for not choreographing more sooner, I think there’s a real argument to be made that these visual moments became all the more memorable for how little visual “noise” surrounded them. Very strong perc and an excellent breakdown with a soaring un-miced backing vocal to support the lead—this was the first we heard of this group as raw rather than so refined, and I loved that transition. Excellent way to wrap up a really strong set.
The last act before intermission was Oakland School for the Arts Vocal Rush. The all-female group wore black and blue. Really nice groove into the opening of “Tightrope” by Janelle Monae. Really cool distinctive, high attitude sound, with a lot of swagger to it. Simple, fluid movement from the group as they bobbed, snapped—very basic and very cool. The group had truly professional aura about it—an intersection of confidence and fullness of sound that I don’t know if I’ve ever heard another high school group match. Great breath control on the high speed solo. Excellent percussion here. This was a polished opening number that was really different from any group we had heard compete up to that point.
The girls followed with Sara Bareilles’s ”Gravity.” There’s a time for innovation and a time for picking something that may be a little played, but executing it to darn near perfection, the latter is what this performance was all about. Outstanding dynamic control from the group with perfect swells of sound from the group. Very careful, controlled solo. I didn’t love the staccato bits of the arrangement on the chorus which seemed to strip away a little of the soft warmth of the song, though I think I see what they were trying for, making the sound a little more diversified and impactful to keep the audience engaged. Some truly beautiful, pristine moments on the solo when the song’s was at its rawest. Wonderful build on the bridge; really nice control on the solo there—while I would have liked for her to pop her volume just a little more, it was still nicely handled and borderline professional grade. Stellar song.
Vocal Rush introduced some sick heartbeat percussion on the intro to ”Let Us Belong” by Alice Russell. Outstanding stage presence, control, and capcity for power on the solo. I wish a lot of college all-female groups could pull off this kind of sound. There are power groups like The AcaBelles and Noteworthy that Take 7 emulated, then there is a more precise, slick all-female sound that’s all the more rare. The best comparison I can think to make between Vocal Rush and any other is The Boxettes out of the UK, for the combination of strength, precision and killer rhythm section. Say what you will, but there’s no question this was the most distinctive set of the night, and very, very arguably the best.
DeKalb High School Enharmonic Fusion opened the second half. The co-ed group wore black and silver. And boy were there a lot of members. Nice high energy, grooving intro to Michael Buble’s ”Hollywood.” Charismatic solo on this one and very good percussion. The group offered up a fun little visual moment as group members play-fought for the spotlight in the background—having so many group members allows you to plan Easter eggs like that for the careful observer without taking anything away from the rest of the performance. Very nice bit as the group split the stage and group members danced down the middle, highlighted by a male pair who fought over a female partner at first then elected to dance with each other. A very entertaining opener.
The group’s second song was “Congratulations” by Blue October. Nice doubling up on the solo with a male and female lead. Impressive control and blend in the background—it’s hard for that many young voices not to get a little unwieldy and they reined things in quite nicely. While I thought the instrumental transition portion was longer than it should have been, I liked implementation of the perc midway through to lend that particular moment of entry an epic feel, before settling into more of a groove on the chorus to follow. Nice breakdown at the end with the low parts anchoring the melody, the high parts echoing the lyrics, and the soloist still standing at the fore, directing traffic.
Enharmonic Fusion closed with Linkin Park’s “Waiting for the End.”Nice intro with group on its hands and knees and clusters of guys standing up to sing, building as it went before they dropped down for one lead to take the fore. Nice emotion on the solo for this one. Very nice harmonies, particularly when the sound grew bigger on the chorus. Great three-part lead on the second chorus. The perc was quite good here. Nice, almost reggae sound on the bridge as the group returned to the theme of members crouching down and re entering the song, which lent an additional thread of coherence to the piece overall. Great call for the group sound to fall out for the soloist to operate alone toward the end. Solid finish to a very good set.
The reigning ICHSA champs, Douglas MacArthur High School PFC took the stage next. The co-ed group wore black and red. Sterling harmonies and tight perc on the intro to Cheryl Cole’s “Parachute.” Just a remarkably full sound from this group, featuring really nice, clean solos. There was an irresistible groove to the sound—when I find myself typing and bobbing my head to the beat, it means I’m probably pretty wrapped up in your set and that’s exactly what happened here. Nice, precise fall outs from the group and a ton going on from a dynamic perspective here. The song was also really stunning from a visual perspective with the movement so fluid and emphatic from every singer on stage.Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick swirling bass sound on the break down to accompany a really captivating swinging arm motion from the group. Fantastic wind down to wrap up the song.
The group served up a haunting, subtle bass lead in to Regina Spektor’s “Eet.” The perc added a fantastic drama to this. Fantastic, subtle movement to match the lyrics (e.g., “move your feet” accompanied by subtle twists of the soloist and front row of singers’ feet). What an interesting song choice. The percussion here was simply incredible--perfectly controlled in terms of volume, keeping this intense, driving the tempo forward, basically driving this whole song. Very good, textured solo. Great fall out moment in which the soloist got a couple measures to sing unaccompanied then softly backed by the group. This is where dynamic variation can add so much emotion to a song.
PFC closed with Don Henley’s ”Forgiveness.” I really dug this song selection for a number of reasons. First of all, there’s the transitional element—the piece starts slow, but leads to something much more epic and befitting of a closer. This also represented one of those moments when a cappella can pull on a long forgotten favorite and bring to the audience’s consciousness in a huge way. I think the group got a little too cutesy for their own good on the choreography here, with arm wave, shrugs and sidesteps—clearly, they knew how to move, but there’s a point of visual noise where you can trust the sound to communicate the essentials and let the bigger visual moments speak for themselves. Really nice, rich solo again. It’s a group of stars, and it’s interesting to hear all female leads. This was going to be made or broken on the bridge, where all that dynamic control pays off on an explosion. Huge pop from the soloist who let loose the control for a second to provide us a moment, perfectly backed by the group marching forward to support her sound. Excellent close to an excellent set.
Newberg High School Mezzo Devotion took the stage next. Blue, black and yellow duds for the group, with sparkles on the young women. They opened with Carrie Underwood’s ”Before he Cheats”. Great power solo here. The choreography was a little overly literal with the vandalism of the vehicle on the choruses, but the group sold it really well. I dig a soloist who ventures past the monitors to connect with the crowd—it does so much to build intimacy. Nice perc. The low end was the unsung hero of this piece, with the women really in the spot light, but the guys lending this song a fullness of sound and executing some neat, complementary choreography in the background. I really liked the idea of this as an assertive opener.
The group followed with India.Arie’s ”Ready for Love.” Slow, soft start, which began with just the low end before the group added the higher parts, crescendoing en route to a nice, precise fall out for the soloist to take over. Nice, full sound again and another really well put together solo that didn’t deliver only vocally, but also from a rich, visual perspective. Great power moments from her, and really nice versatility as the group fell out and she led the charge back in with a true emotional vulnerability. The emotion was palpable from this group, top to bottom.
From there, Mezzo Devotion progressed to Jason Derulo’s ”Encore.” Very good percussion on this one. The group served up some really fun movement and fell out to afford the soloist room to operate with some serious attitude, and the group grooving and bobbing its way back into the mix. Nice vocal range on the lead to slip into the high notes. One of the interesting components was how many different things the group did visually, with guys and girls often offering up completely separate, but complementary movements. Really fun bit as two of the guys lept off stage to work the crowd for the last leg of the song. I really like groups breaking the fourth wall like that, and my only knock on that decision in this case was that the group didn’t really seem to have a game plan for where to take things from there—it was a little awkward when the guys came back on stage just to join the rest of the group in making an exit. Putting that aside, this was a smart, engaging choice for a closer, and fine wrap up to a strong set.
Port Washington High School Limited Edition closed the competition. Nice distinctive, yellow, black and gray color pattern for this co-ed crew. They kicked off their set with Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope.” Wonderful attitude on the lead here, a great rhythm section behind her, and a slick transition to he second soloist who worked the stage with a real finesse. When they transitioned to a third lead, I couldn’t helping noting how remarkable it was that the group had found and/or cultivated not just one, but three female high school soloists who can pull of his level of swagger, finesse, and skill. Sick percussion and bass on this one. Remarkable breath control from the group. Really fun and call and response bit between the solo and the lead, which led into a well-executed rap. The group brought the three leads together for the finish—very nice, distinctive opener.
Limited edition opened its second song, “Bluebird” by Sara Bareilles, softly. Lovely choral take on the lead from the ladies at the end of the first verse. Nice dynamic build into a sort of jazzy lead into the second verse, before a complete fall out before the soloist came forward again. Really nice high harmonies and a killer bass sound for a group this age. Excellent build of sound in the end game. I was really taken with the sheer maturity of the group on this song—patient and polished from the soloist on down the line. Stellar song.
The group settled into a groove early for “Not Over You” by Gavin DeGraw Very good, rich solo here with a ton of theatrical energy behind it. Nice control of dynamics again, and nice variation of tempo. I loved the fluid rearrangements of the group’s position, ultimately flowing into a straight line. What fantastic closer, and I appreciated that a male lead took the last song to help the piece feel all the more distinctive from the estrogen-powered opening tunes. This was a top-notch set.
While the judges deliberated and the tabulators… tabulated… the audience enjoyed the legit treat of hearing the reigning ICCA champions Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped. Their set was, as one might expect, pretty darn near perfect, including “Bright Lights Bigger City,” “Without Your Love,” “Breakeven,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Love on Top” (and by God, those key changes still give me chills every time I hear them sing this),“Taking it to the Streets,” and “The Other Side.” What can you say about Pitch Slapped that hasn’t already been said? Sterling arrangements; full, professional sound on every song; masterful dynamics; wonderful stage presence; perc to die for; and, perhaps most noticeably, the single deepest, richest roster of soloists in all of collegiate a cappella. It doesn’t get much better than that.
This was a really tough competition to call. In the end, I felt pretty certain that one of four groups would take home the championship, but which of the four, and in what order they would place left some serious question marks. PFC and Limited Edition each offered up the fullest performances of the night, combining a polished quality of sound with killer rhythm sections, fantastic leads, and stunning visual presentations. If you closed your eyes, Forte was quite arguably the most proficient group from a purely aural perspective. And then there was Vocal Rush. No, their visuals were not as advanced as PFC, Limited Edition, or The Highlands Voices, but then how much do Rockappella, Pentatonix, or Committed really choreograph? As impressive as a visual production can be, there’s a point at which pure stage presence is all the more powerful. Pair that with stunning soloists and a remarkable fullness of sound, and you have the act that people will be talking about for years to come, and, by extension, the act that should be named champions—I have to go with Vocal Rush as the deserving winners, with the four groups to follow just a notch or two behind them. I hand The Highlands Voices and Mezzo Devotion nipping at this foursome’s heels.
Vocal Rush did take home the championship in the end. The group noted that a number of group members couldn’t join them that night, and so, with the unit in New York, they could only repeat oneo f the songs they had already sung. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone in crowd minded hearing “Let Us Belong” again to close out the night.
Mike Chin’s picks for the Night
1. Vocal Rush
3. TIE: Forte and Limited Edition
1. Vocal Rush for “Let Us Belong"
2. Limited Edition for “Blue Bird”
3. Mezzo Devotion for "Before He Cheats"
4. WitchPitch for the female backing lead on "I Was Here"
5. Limited Edition for “Not Over You”
Best Visual Presentation
1. Highlands Voices for "Stuck Like Glue"
2. Take 7 for "Survivor"
3. Mezzo Forte for "Encore"
1. Forte for the full set
2. PFC for "Forgiveness"
3. Limited Edition for “Not Over You”
4. Vocal Rush for the full set
5. Enharmonic Fusion for “Waiting for the End”
Best Vocal Percussion
2. Limited Edition
3. Vocal Rush
ICHSA Official Results
1. Vocal Rush
3. Limited Edition
Outstanding Soloist: Sarah Evila, Vocal Rush for "Let Us Belong"
Outstanding Arrangement: Limited Edition “Not Over You”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: PFC
Outstanding Choreography: Highland Voices