On Friday, April 19, New York Society for Ethical Culture in New York, NY, played host to the International Championship of High School A Cappella Finals. The event featured eleven competing groups. Before we get to the review, a quick summary:
Port Washington High School Limited Edition
Centerville High School Forte
Oregon Children’s Choir Synergy
The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices
Oakland School for the Arts Vocal Rush
Salem High School WitchPitch?
Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School Vega
Steele and Clemens High School Mixed Company
Palm Harbor University After School Specials
Parkway North High School Powder Room
Madison High School Madison Avenue
Emcees: Lo Barreiro and Hannah Juliano
Photos from this show are available now on The A Cappella Blog Facebook page.
ICHSA Director Andrea Poole opened the evening with the standard announcements before introducing the emcees, Lo Barreiro and Hannah Juliano—alumnae of ICCA powerhouses, current groupmates in Musae, and vaunted a cappella consultants (among other things). Excellent work by the ladies this evening keeping the mood energetic and giving each group its due attention over a long evening of a cappella.
The first competitors were Limited Edition. The co-ed group came out wearing black, blue, and gray. They opened with Outasight’s “I’ll Drink To That.” Nice full sound from the group. Very good charisma on the solo. Very fun transition to the first chorus as the percussion keyed in and the group members crossed paths, high fiving and grooving into a V-formation. I really liked this as a choice for an opener at Finals—not only fitting for the obvious purposes of singing about New York in the city, but as a song that I imagine functioned as an anthem, energizing this group en route to the Finals stage. Solid first song.
Limited Edition’s second song featured an excellent, mature solo. Nice soft start on this one—lovely restraint from the group as they kept it soft and low, harmonizing faintly with one another across the first verse. A female lead doubled up the solo—the two complemented each other really nicely—better still when they drew closer and sang to one another. Really good bass sound on this one, keeping the piece warm and well-rounded.
The group wrapped up with Delta Rae’s ”The Morning Comes.” I love this song choice as it has an almost gospel feel to it and felt like a call to arms after the mellow middle song. Stellar solo here and great dramatic decisions on the dynamics, ranging from a full fall-out moment leading into the chorus, to a pop of sound leading into the second verse. It sounded like the tempo got a head a little ahead of the group on this one, and while they handled it ably, I felt that the speed didn’t quite allow the soloist to rip quite as loose as you’d want for him to on a spotlight song like this. Really artful finish as the song slowed way down and the group went soft for a warm, touching finish. All in all, it was a really strong set from Limited Edition. I thought they might have been al the stronger had their been a bit more stylistic continuity or narrative thread on the transitions between songs, gut it’s a relatively minor quibble for this evening’s performance.
Next up, Forte! The Centerville High crew wore purple and black. They opened their set with Carrie Underwood’s ”Blown Away” Really rich low end on the opening of this one. Huge explosion of sound as the group launched into the first chorus. Very nice solo. Cool bit of staging as the men shuffled in the background and ended up in a straight line, then the women did the same, forming a line behind them, which set them up for another big moment as the women slid forward on the next power transition, then they formed a line with men and women alternating in the line. Very good percussion. Nice, offbeat, power opener—when you only have twelve minutes to stake your claim as world champions, you want to use ever y one of those minutes to make a case—this group attacked the stage with their opener.
Forte continued with “Smash” by Beyonce. Nice solo, full of heart. Really cool visual choice to for two lines of group members to walk past each other, interweaving with one another, member by member. Really nice soft finish as the soloist sang unaccompanied.
The group closed with Alex Clare’s ”Too Close.” Good female solo on this one, lending the song a bit different feel from the original and most of the covers I’ve heard this year. Rich, powerful vocals from her. Great intensity from the group, bobbing and leaning forward as the vocals grew most intense on the chorus. The group integrated an excellent segment with stomps, thigh slaps, and snaps combining to provide rhythm section. Too many groups have everyone doing the same thing on stage when it comes to movement or body percussion, but splitting up it up like this creates a more controlled, more complex sound. Nicely done. Really cool break out section as the men lined the stage behind the soloist echoing “on my way” and then the girls spun out from a cluster at the back of the stage to join them at the front line. To make a song so heavily covered this year feel fresh in April is a real testament to any group. Excellent finisher for a top-notch set.
Next up, all-female Synergy. The women wore black and royal blue. They opened with “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga. Great energy from the group on the opening, moving confidently. And the soloists looked right at home on the front of the stage. The blend took a few measures to find its footing, but the women had pulled it together by the chorus. Really good creative choice to for the first two soloists to recede on the quiet lead into the second verse as a third soloist took command. This one was a little over-choreographed for my tastes but I do like the song choice for an opening number, giving the young women a familiar song of empowerment to gather steam at the front end of their set.
The women moved on to “I Need This” by Chris Brown I loved the soft, restrained solo on this one, hinting at the undercurrent of power to her vocals, but keeping enough back for a very sincere, emotional lead in. A few nice swells of sound on this one to diversify the sound, though the piece started to feel a little stagnant to me before the bridge, and I wondered if a little creative trimming may have kept the piece feel a little more vital throughout. Some pretty high harmonies on the finish.
Synergy closed with Fun.’s “Some Nights.” Nice energy once again. Really good visual transition into the verse as the full group got in motion leaving the soloist standing tall at center stage. Good march forward on the transition to the second chorus, which helped complement the marching rhythm at that point in the song. Really fun sample of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” by Lulu and the Lampshades, made famous in a cappella circles as the cups song from Pitch Perfect. This was a really smart transitional choice as it allowed the group to cut early to the bridge, at which point the group felt palpably more energetic. Nice riffing on the solo in the end game. Good bit of doubling on the finish as the first soloist rejoined the third and alternated lines. Nonetheless, nice sense of closure there for a fine finish.
The Highlands Voices performed next. The co-ed group was clad in their signature black and red. They opened with Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” Nice sass on this one and excellent energy, particularly from the guys on selling the movement in the background. Slick transition to the second verse with a new soloist who worked her way from the back of the stage, and a nice bit of staging with the men and women clustered on opposite sides of the stage and interacting angrily with each other. Interesting creative choice with the soloists teaming up to berate the male vocal percussionist on the bridge before they doubled up to punch the final leg of the song. Pretty ridiculous acrobatics in the background as a group member cartwheeled into a hands free back flip in the background as the women dominated the front of the stage. While that movement wasn’t entirely purposeful there, but it did help demonstrate that the group was giving 100 hundred percent of itself on this song, which is a good sign for an opener.
The group sang Christina Aguilera’s ”Beautiful” next. What a set of pipes from this soloist—filled to the brim with power! The low end was really strong on the chorus here, though their vocals tended to overpower the higher ones a little at a points. Excellent transition to The Pretenders’ ”I’ll Stand By You.” Great creative choice for the second soloist to sing to the first—building some really powerful emotion there. Great mashing bit as the two soloists took their own songs and combined them at that point, before converging on the Aguilera song. Similar to the first number, I think the greatest strength of all for this piece was that the group seemed to be leaving every bit of itself on the stage. No denying the kids from Jersey came to play this year.
The group wrapped up its set with U2’s ”Beautiful Day.” Really sharp choreography on this one with perfect precision and synchronization, all the while attacking every movement. Another strong solo, this one doing a particularly good job working the stage and seeming to be conscious every moment of what he was doing with hands—I love a performance where it’s clear the lead knows exactly what he’s doing on that front, and is doing everything for a reason. The only things I’d like to hear more of from this group are more contemporary song selections, and a slightly more careful ear for tuning when they attacked the music most aggressively. The crowd applauded over the soft finish of this song—a good sign that they were all too eager to applaud this group, and deservedly so for one of the most spirited performances I can recall hearing on the ICHSA stage.
The reigning ICHSA champions, Vocal Rush. They took the stage in black and dark blue. They opened with a crowd rousing rendition of ”California Love” by Tupac. Spirited rap and pulsing vocals on the opening here. I really liked this as an identity piece to communicate exactly who this group is from the get-go, and like that they assumed a very different identity from their previous, chiller, more grooving identity from 2012.
Really cool high, buzzing sound on the lead into Nneka’s ”Heartbeat.” Such a full, powerful sound—if you closed your eyes, you might think there were twice as many people on stage, but opening them up it was remarkable the find that the group achieved this level of sound from just a dozen high school kids. Really good, raw-edge solo here, and high impact choreography.
Next up, Beyonce’s ”I Was Here.” Really crisp solo here and nice doubling on it rounding the corner into the first chorus. Really nice swell of sound on the opening to the second verse with a new lead. The choreography on this one, while pretty subtle, nonetheless felt a little gratuitous—the points at which the group repositioned itself were good, particularly as new soloists took the fore, but I didn’t think the rise and fall of hands did much. The unaccompanied lead singing “I w as here,” then spreading it throughout the group was really powerful before the group keyed back in. Excellent, unexpected power moment that really underscored the depth of the group.
The group closed with a near seamless transition to Delta Rae’s ”Bottom of the River.” This song has gotten pretty played in collegiate circles, but it was remarkable to hear what these young people were prepared to do with it, positively ripping into the song and then making the unconventional choice to put a hip hop beat behind it on the second verse. In a lesser group’s hands, that choice may have made the song feel more lightweight or schizophrenic, but in this case, I got the sense that the group not only maintained the intensity, but added a layer of darker, edgier, urban heat to it, which transitioned perfectly into a full stomp routine. This is one of the cases where the rhythm feels so engrained in the group’s identity that it not only accentuates the music but helps make the song more clearly the group’s own. Vocal Rush rocked the house once again, and better yet, did it in a whole new way this year. Sensational.
Next up, WitchPitch?. The group wore, black, white, and black this year. They opened with Franz Ferdinand’s ”Take Me Out.” I loved the decision to embrace a progressive rock sound on their opener. Great charisma from the lead and very good sell of the visuals all around fromr the group. Slick transition into “Paralyzer” by Finger Eleven. Really good power moment as the soloists owned the front of the stage.
The group fowllowed up with Natasha Bedingfield’s ”Neon Lights.” Good solo, providing a fun, lighter performance. Good visual bit with head turns from the group members in time with the more staccato parts of the arrangement. Very good percussion here. Fun bit of body percussion as group members crouched and slapped the stage leading into the second chorus. The group presented a trio of young men who consistently hammed it up and interacted with each other and I thought they looked great—I’d actually loved to have seen this energy and visible camaraderie pulse through the entire group to further sell the group as not only a unit, but a collection of people who were really having fun on stage together.
WitchPitch? wrapped up with “Open ” by Regina Spektor. Haunting, detached solo on this one. Excellent dramatic bit in the late stages of the song as group members knelt, then rose little by little behind the soloists on a slow crescendo, before the group sound fell out. Wonderful control on this song.
The first soloist stepped forward again to close the set on “Feeling Good.” Nice lead. Super slick moment in the background as the group had fallen silent and the VP guy unholstered his mic like a gun, slid it to his mouth and exploded into the second verse. Wonderful charisma from the lead as he worked the stage with a trio of back up dancers behind him, swaying and snapping their fingers. I really liked the dramatic variation throughout this song. Really good, dramatic presentation to close out a diverse, well-sung set.
Vega opened the second half of the show. Just six members for this group. They opened with ”Both of Us” by Taylor Swift and BOB. Tremendously rich sound from the group and really fun moment as they grooved into the rap segment of the song. Energy, spunk, and fire—just about everything clicked for this song. Tremdous charisma from the rapper, challenging the front of the stage and getting into the audience. Really lovely harmonies from a pair of female leads a lovely contrast to the rap segment. Great pecsussion and a turbo-charged bass on the second verse. The group introduced itself to the crowd as the type of ensemble that does not need to choreography, but can simply dance, work in a handful of re-positionings, and have more than enough fire to carry the song.
Next up, we revisit Christina Aguilera’s ”Beautiful.” Haunting, cool whistling sound in the background on the intro. Very good solo and nice contributions from the bass again. The tempo grooved forward into the seoncd verse as a pair of young ladies doubled up on the solo before transitioning back to the one lead for the chorus. Good visual bit as the group lined the front of the stage toward the close. Lovely moment as the low end fell out, allowing the ladies to shine leading into the finish.
The group closed with ”Circus” by Britney Spears. The choreography was a little heavy handed on this one but when the group kept things simpler and moved they were at their best here. Another strong lead. The group charisma was quite good again on this song, though the sound wasn’t quite so clean. Fun stop motion choreography for a bit in the background. Strong moment as the group went choral briefly, standing in a circle, bent back, and then bent forward. Good closer for a good set from Vega.
Mixed Company sang next. The coe-d group started with ”Happy Pills” by Norah Jones Credit to the group for maintaining their vocals amidst a flood of choreography on the opening. Very good solo here with fun infusion of stage stomping percussion to punctuate the song. Very good percussion.
Next up was an original composition by group member Brent Ramirez, called “Cherry Tree” Easy, jazzy feel to this song with a silky smooth lead that, slick as it was, just the same captured a sense of wistfulness to fit the song.Really fun breakdown bit on the repetition of “you” in which group members pointed at each other. Beautiful un-miced four-part lead in the end game. I might have milked that more, extending the quartet’s time in the spotlight for a little longer, but it’s a minor quibble.
The set continued with ”One Sweet Love” by Sara Bareilles. The group stood in a triangular formation at the back of the stage, then the soloist emerged from the pack to stand alone opposite them. Very nice solo on this one. Great visual moment as the group members were scattered around the stage and froze in place and the soloist wove her way through them, touching group members on the arm to comfort them. Good follow up in the closing moments of the song as the soloist came to the front of the stage and the group members mobilized to put their hands on her shoulders, then on each other’s and present a united front, center stage to close set. Good image, and a powerful finish to a fine set.
Next up After School Specials. Black and red duds for this co-ed group. They kicked off their set with Hey Monday’s “I Don’t Wanna Dance”Solid, clear vocals on the lead. Lots of really good bits of staging on this one as the group repositioned and had a great moment packed tight in the middle of the stage reaching for the soloist.
Seamless transitions to Imogen Heap’s ”Earth.” The group handled the complex sound of this song really well, and I was impressed with the mature song choice for the group—picking a song with a very real and complex message to it. Nice full sound from the group, particularly in the late stages of the song on the repetition of “you’re only what you give back.”
From there the group transitioned to “Undisclosed desires” by Muse. Once again, I have to praise the song selection—diverse, unconventional and a bit edgy. Very good percussion on this one. Really good trio of leads in the second verse.
The group closed with “Release the Stars” by Rufus Wainwright. Really lovely old school lead on this one. Fun bit as a group of six women served as back up dancers for the soloist as the perc keyed in. Money notes, then the group transitioned to female leads for ”I’m A Star” by Scott Alan. The combination of these two pieces lent a real narrative arc to the closing minutes of this set, with the group singing about old Hollywood and building to the big finish—the pursuit of the Hollywood stardom dream. Strong finish.
Next up, Powder Room, the second all-female group of the evening. They opened with Muse’s ”Time Is Running Out.” I loved this is as an opener—a song that automatically subverts every expectation listeners have for all-female a cappella. When I think back to my own high school days, I can hardly imagine a group—let alone a group made up exclusively of only female members—tackling a song like this, and it’s pretty darn cool to see it happening on this stage. Downright edgy. Excellent high harmonies coming out of the first chorus. Very good rhythm section. Solid solo. Good, understated visual performance.
They followed with Carrie Underwood’s ”Before He Cheats.” I liked the song choice, resuming the sense of this as a power women’s group. Though I liked the quick series of four snaps on the “four-wheel drive” lyric on each chorus I could have done without the other overly literal choreography on the choruses which I worried undercut the gravity of the fine vocals the young women employed. Excellent, aggressive solo. Really strong doubling of the solo at the end of the first verse.
Powder Room ended its set with “Mamma Who Bore Me” from Spring Awakening. I liked that they picked something distinctly feminine and a piece that gave them room to start slow and let the sound swell, stomping their way into the up-tempo leg of the song, and spreading the stomp among group members before grooving into a bit of free-form dance. I might have opened up the vocals and the dance break a little wider to really go all out on this one, but it was a strong closer nonetheless. Part of what really worked for this group was that they most certainly had a clearly defined identity as a power women’s group, embracing the raw edge of the music they chose. I think if they stay true to that sound the’ll have worlds of potential to continue to grow.
On to the final competitors of the evening, Madison Avenue. The coed group took the stae clad in black and maroon. Information Society’s “What’s On your mind (Pure Energy)” Nice choral opening before the group sagged and came back to life as the perc picked up. Rich, rhythmic sound here. The soloist came forward from the back. Really involved choreography on this one, which the group executed pretty seamlessly. Cool visual bit with the soloist standing center stage and the group clustered around him, reaching in, then reaching out. Fun little rap segment.
The group followed up with “Permanenet” by David Cook. Interesting staging with men and women paired off, backs to each other, holding hands, the percussionists seated on the stage and the soloist up front. Nice, emotional solo here—sold both vocally and facially for a really compelling performance.
Madison Avenue closed with well-executed stomp-clap perc intro to Imagine Dragons’s “It’s Time.” Really good, rich solo on this one. Nice bass sound, though I would have liked to have heard a little more of him. Really fun bit heading into the last chorus as the group hit the front of the stage and sang chorally, drawing a clap-along form the crowd. Ton of choreography on this one again, which felt a little cutesy for the song—this is where choreography runs the risk of going past making things interesting and makes a group come off more show choir-ish. Plenty of groups flirted with that line this evening, and while many of them, like Madison Avenue, executed the moves very well, this brand of staging isn’t always as interesting or impactful in a cappella as more restrained visuals can be. The competition for best choreography isn’t just about degree of difficulty, it’s about appropriateness of movement. And it was a little much ere. End rant. Strong aural close to the song, and a nice pose on the finish.
As the judges deliberated, Contemporary A Cappella League (CAL) group Restated entertained the crowd. Their set included “Dance in the Graveyards,” “Firecracker,” “Just Dance,” “The Cave,” an inspired take on “Enter Sandman” (entered into with a nice bit of subterfuge via a sample of “Mr. Sandman,”) “Sedated,” and an un-mic’ed take on “Wintersong,” and “I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends,” It‘s a real treat to hear a group like this do its thing on this stage, bringing their maturity of performance style to this particular audience, and demonstrating to everyone in attendance that there is most certainly a cappella well beyond the confines of the scholastic setting.
Meanwhile, I gathered my picks for the evening. It’s remarkable to see how far competitive high school has come since the first ICHSA Finals I attended six years ago. There were no weak links in this show. Ultimately, I thought Vocal Rush deserved the championship for offering such a unique, textured, sound, so rich in personality; well-tuned but also tremendously engaging. The international champions should be the group that defines that year for high school a cappella—that ventures into new frontiers without losing sight of the tradition to precede them. Friends, this year, that group is Vocal Rush. That said, I do feel that each group was more than deserving of recognition in its own right. In particular, Forte’s musical precision, brilliant staging, and poise are remarkable not just for performers their age but any a cappella group anywhere. Highlands Voices brought unreal intensity and emotion to the Finals stage. Powder Room reinforced a relatively new trend of raw power in women’s a cappella. Limited Edition continued to build upon a long, storied history as one of the premiere a cappella groups in the country. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, high school a cappella is in a pretty awesome place.
Vocal Rush did, indeed, win the championship and closed the night with their encore, “Born This Way.”
1. Vocal Rush
3. Highlands Voices
4. Powder Room
5. Limited Edition
1. Madison Avenue for "Permanent"
2. Vocal Rush for “Bottom of the River”
3. Highlands Voices for “Beautiful”
4. Limited Edition for “The Morning Comes”
5. Vocal Rush for "Heartbeat"
Outstanding Vocal Percussion
2. After School Speicals
3. Vocal Rush
Outstanding Visual Presentation
1. Vocal Rush for “Bottom of the River”
2. Forte for “Too Close”
3. Highlands Voices for the full set
1. Vocal Rush
3. Powder Room
Outstanding Soloists: Jordan Sanchez from Madison Avenue for “Permanent” and Kyana Fanene from Vocal Rush for “Bottom of the River”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Angel Coleman from After School Specials and Charlie Arthur from Forte
Outstanding Choreography: Highlands Voices and Vocal Rush
Outstanding Arrangement: Derrick Dupuis from WithPitch? and Brent Ramirez from Mixed Company