On April 25, 2014, Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York, NY played host to the ICHSA Finals. Before the review, a quick summary of the event.
La Platta High School of Maryland Unplugged, ICHSA Northeast Champions
Port Washington High School Limited Edition, ICHSA Great Lakes Champions
Berkleley Preparatory School Mello Divas, ICHSA South Champions
The Kettering Fairmont High School Fusion, ICHSA Midwest champions
The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices, ICHSA Mid-Atlantic Champions
Cheyenne Mountain High School Crimson, ICHSA Southwest Champions
Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School Vega, ICHSA Ohio Valley Champions
Niles West High School Echo Effect, ICHSA Michigan Champions
Wilsonville High School Soul'd Out, ICHSA Northwest champions
The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Belles, ICHSA New England Champions
Guest Group: The Northeastern University Nor'easters
Emcee: Cooper Kitching
One more quick note before I get to the music. Symphony Space is an aesthetically pleasing venue with excellent sound, and my understanding is that the production staff from the venue was quite good. I was less pleased with my experience working with the staff attending to the auditorium during the show. I was not permitted to use my computer, and thus had to use handwritten notes, and so I appreciate your understanding that this event review will not be as comprehensive as others that I've written over the last two years. I make every effort for my computer use not to distract the audience by turning the brightness down as far as possible, muting all sound, and using a privacy screen that not only hides what I'm writing, but further dims the screen. These measures did not satisfy the usher staff. I understand they have a job to do and their own guidelines in place, but I was disappointed that they wouldn't allow me to use the computer, but that, from what I could gather they arbitrarily chose not enforce the no camera policy and not only allowed but actively encouraged late arriving audience members to cut in front of audience members in the middle of songs early in the show rather than waiting for breaks between songs (let alone in between sets), which I felt was an insult to the groups that had worked so hard to prepare their performances. End of rant.
The first group of the night was Unplugged, a mixed group which took the stage in black duds with neon green highlights. They opened with a mashup of Maroon 5's "Harder to Breathe" and Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Dark (Light 'Em Up)." Tremendous energy from this group, particularly when the songs did not just transition between one another, but actively combined. Very rich, full group sound. All in all, I felt this was a really good choice for an opener to grab the audience's attention and make a statement from the very beginning of the set.
Next up, "Back at One" by Brian McKnight. It was a good enough song selection for a change of pace and opportunity to show a more reflective and romantic side of the group, but I thought that there was the potential to make this performance even stronger by keeping the energy up, not so much in the form of a fast tempo, as by using their emotional intensity as an outlet for the energy. This song was technically on point and boasted a nice fullness of sound, but I thought a little more raw emotion could have gone a long way toward really captivating the crowd.
The group closed with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's "Can't Hold Us," which I felt denoted excellent song selection to go back to highlighting the group's greatest strength as a high energy, fun group. Very good perc and bass work on this one, and an excellent fake out ending before the group launched into a dubstep breakdown. People will probably have divergent opinions about the back flip in this song. While I don't know that it was entirely necessary, I'm all for delivering a distinctive moment that represents exactly what your group is about, and this bit of movement, paired with a crescendo, did just that--giving the audience a signature visual to ensure they would not forget Unplugged.
Next up, we heard from the 2010 ICHSA champs, Limited Edition.They wore black and neon pink. Nice bass hum on the lead in to Gavin DeGraw's "Best I Ever Had." The story of this song was the silky smooth solo--a truly phenomenal outing for the same young man who sang "Not Over You" for this group in 2013. What can I say? The kid's a star and on the unlikely chance he doesn't find other opportunities to thrive, I have no doubt he could shine as one of the best Gavin DeGraw cover artists on the planet, of any age. Very lively showing for the group, and smart staging that involved plenty of movement without overt choreography--just a fun, dynamic presentation on a strong opener.
The group followed up with "Cells Planets." Good solo, and very nice unisons from the group. Wonderful precision on the dynamic shifts in the song, which the group complemented nicely with their movement--most notably exploding across the stage on a pop of sound. Very good middle song.
Limited Edition closed with Tori Kelly's "Fill a Heart." I have a soft spot for "message songs" as closers, particularly if a group can find a way to make the audience believe in what they're singing. The group rotated through soloists which works well on a song like this to communicate the shared conviction in what they're singing and mirror the lyrics, proclaiming that "we can change the outcome if we join in." Great moment when they went for the clap along to tie up a really polished set.
The Mello Divas took the stage next--an all-female group in black dresses and red shoes. They opened with "Feelin' Good." As regular readers of my reviews know, I feel one of the biggest favors a group can do for itself in the competition setting is to develop a cohesive set that establishes their identity with the audience, and this jazzy number, featuring a captivating soloist went a long way toward selling the group as cool, dignified, and (for men (and women) younger than myself) sultry. Cool bit of staging with the young women swirling their arms up and down in what I read as an approximation of leaves fluttering down in the wind. Very good, distinctive opener--the only piece I might have tweaked was to have softened the blunt "shazam" syllables that recurred coming out of the choruses. Putting that aside, a good start.
Shrewd, seamless transition to "This Love" by Maroon 5. Nice attitude from the group, and a very cool visual on the bridge as the group stretched in slow motion in the background. Fun idea for the ladies to insert a bit of a dubstep break down--I didn't see that coming, and it subverted my expectations in an appealing way.
The Mello Divas wrapped up with Britney Spears's "Toxic." They implemented a slow, jazzy opening that helped transform a good closing song choice for this group into a near perfect fit for the identity they were shaping. Such a cool interpretation. Another good visual moment with the group members closing in around the soloist, before she moved forward on her own to the front of the stage. Really good money note in the end game, before the group circled back to the windy arm motions they used on their opener to serve up a nice bit of symmetry in closing out a fine set.
Fusion performed next. The co-ed group wore red, black, and white, and started their set with Bastille's "Pompeii." Very good perc and really nice use of dynamics on this one. The soloist demonstrated nice control, pulling back, then tacking the music full force over the course of the song. Nice complexity of the arrangement, and the only piece that I didn't care for so much was a bit of a buzzing edge from the bass that felt a little out of place on the song.
Fusion followed up with "I Won't Let Go" by Rascal Flatts. Excellent stage presence from the soloist on this one, and she had a wonderful timbre to her voice. Nice fall out moment toward the close, and excellent control, again, from a Fusion soloist to keep this segment of the song measured, slow, and steady. Excellent second song.
Nice electric hum en route to Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." Good charisma from the soloist. The group did a fine job of working through a number of tempo shifts. I liked the idea of this song as a closer and the all-around sound came across really polished--if there was one additional element I could request, I would have asked for this song to have sounded and looked more like a party. Taking a page out of the book of the eventual ICCA Champions (spoiler alert) Pitch Slapped, great music is even better when executed in such a way that the group really looks to be having fun. We got a taste of that in the late stages of the song when a young man broke from the pack and strutted to the front of the stage to take over the lead late in the song for an explosive moment--I just wish more of the song had come across with that level of energy and bravado. Just the same, a strong closer to a solid set.
The next group out was The Highlands Voices. The co-ed group was making its fourth straight ICHSA Finals appearance, and kicked off their set with "We Own the Night" by The Wanted. The song began with just the soloist on stage, then a second and a third group member, before everyone danced and grooved into place. Now that's making a performance look like a party. Sensational personality from the leads. I really liked the choice to open this set with such a big, powerful song that wound down to a soft, simple finish to set up the next number.
The group followed up with a mashup of "Demons" by Imagine Dragons and "Secrets" by One Republic. This proved to be a simply brilliant pairing of songs--they fit together naturally in an aural sense in addition to their thematic connection. The brilliance of the arrangement and skill of the group was particularly evident on the first chorus. There's a real danger the way the group threw both songs together so early on that they would sing over each other and create a cacophony at what should have been a tender moment--instead, the songs seemed to melt together, creating something new and beautiful between the composite pieces. The solos were both fantastic--controlled and powerful--but on top of that, my hat's off to the full group for emoting their butts off for a truly moving performance.
The Highlands Voices closed with Paramore's "Ain't It Fun." Excellent energy again, and the song offered up a pair of dynamite female leads. Stellar group sound throughout, and particularly on the finish when the group went for an un-mic'ed unison at the front of the stage, then sang the closing line again on mic. Putting all of that aside, I'd be remiss not to address what I felt was the most memorable part of the song, the set, and probably the night, which was when the soloists descended from opposite sides of the stage into the audience. That sort of move is a gamble. It removes the singers from the rest of the group, and takes a chance on whether the mics will respond accordingly, on top of which it's debatable whether descending off stage when the houselights are off is a wise performance decision. All of that said, the decision was also bold, and unlike anything any other group did that night. In actuality, one of the mics did not work the way it was supposed to, and the absence of spotlights didn't make the venture into the crowd as electric as it otherwise might have been. Just the same that moment, above all others, was demonstrative of just how badly this group needed to win. A great group can play it safe, but I'd argue that the groups that become legendary get a running start on their way out of their comfort zones and give the audience absolutely everything they have for twelve minutes. That, my friends, is what made The Highlands Voices champions in 2014.
Crimson was up next. Cooper shared a fun fact that the group has competed in the ICHSA tournament seven times and, on each of those occasions, has gone all the way to Finals. Not too shabby. The seven-member all-female group opened with "Chain of Fools." Very nice low end, and excellent fullness of sound. The group offered up a strong solo and demonstrated excellent stage presence--not so much choreographing as working the audience. Fun, sassy samples of "Never Gonna Get It" late in the song. All in all, it was a very effective opener.
The group continued with Ellie Goulding's "Anything Could Happen." They started out staggered on stage--underscoring the group's uncanny skill at creating memorable visuals, again, without a ton of choreography per se. Nice use of dynamics to build this song, and a very well-executed bit of stomp percussion to build the bridge.
Crimson wrapped up with "Rumor Has It" by Adele, a number with just the brand of sass and feminine energy to suit this group perfectly. It's a real joy to see an all-female group of this age demonstrate this level of power and control on stage. Sensational control of the movement--everything about the performance felt natural where it could have seemed contrived. Good use of dynamics again, and the group offered up some wonderful intensity on the repetition of the "just 'cause I said it" lyrics. All in all, a really strong outing that furthered the tradition of excellence for this group.
Next up, Vega. The co-ed group wore blue and black. They opened with Little Mix's "Wings." Very good bass sound and phenomenal sass on the solo at the opening. The staging was really shrewd--simple, complementary to the music. Nice, full sound from the group for a cool opening number.
The set continued with Rihanna's "What Now." Nice slide movement on this one. Excellent solo work and the group did a wonderful job of executing the key change at the bridge. Cool flurry of choreo toward the end, which I read as representative of the turmoil inherent to the piece. Top to bottom, a stellar middle song.
"Barton Hollow" by The Civil Wars closed out the set. Really cool electric hum on the opening, which sold the tension of the piece and created a connection between this number and the more "plugged in" songs to precede it. Very good, dark solo here, and stellar doubling of that solo between the male and female leads on the chorus. I liked the choice to move to a three-way lead on the next verse, helping to keep things interesting. The group did an intensely countrified breakdown on the second chorus--a departure from the original song that I felt paid dividends in paying homage to the southern roots of this song's sound, and subverting the audience's expectations. The group executed a nice crescendo on the finish--the only thing I might have tweaked was to have gone even quieter to allow for an even more epic build on the close. As it was, it was still a very satisfying close to an excellent set.
All-male Echo Effect was up next. They opened with Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z's "Holy Grail." Very cool harmonic intro and a scintillating high tenor solo here. Electric transition to a rap solo with the perc turned up behind him to get the group off and grooving, before they transitioned back to the original lead. This was an off-beat opener that really showed off the group's many talents, and I thought it was an excellent choice.
The group progressed to "Fix You" by Coldplay. Very good, sincere solo work, which the group doubled up on nicely for the chorus. Good low end. The group sped up on the bridge with a very nice tenor riff over it and a tremendous swell of sound. The group demonstrated excellent emotion, though the blend came apart at the seams a little when they were most into the music. I can't blame them for attacking the music with such gusto--indeed, I think that's precisely the approach a group should take at this level of competition, but it didn't quite break in Echo Effect's favor in the late stages of the song.
The group wrapped up with Robin Stjernberg's "You." Man, do this group's soloist know how to connect with an audience. I thought the group had more room to really explode on this song, but just the same it was another moving piece, and I found the performance especially powerful when they all lined the front the stage. Very good finish to a strong set.
Soul'd Out, a co-ed group that's earlier incarnation made it onto The Sing-Off was up next. Very professional black, white, and teal threads. They opened with Katy Perry's "ET." Very slick, electrified sound on the opening. I liked the choice of soloist here--it's easy for a co-ed group to default to a soloist of the same gender as the original artist; it's better to give the lead to the person best equipped to handle it, regardless of gender, and it can make the song more distinctively the group's own when you subvert expectations. Very good control of the tempo to keep this one mellow and measured. Really good stage presence all around for a fine opener.
The group lined up in two rows, then split for the soloist to make her way forward for "Skyfall" by Adele. Cool visual moment and this song sat right in this lead's vocal wheelhouse. Nice swelling of sound on the chorus and I enjoyed the choice to mix up the arrangement and work in a cool echo effect on the bridge. The group was excellent in implementing its movement, hitting the sweet spot between looking prepared, but also making their choreography look completely natural.
Soul'd Out finished with Bon Iver's "Calgary." Lovely blend throughout this one, and an excellent dramatic moment when the perc finally keyed in. It was a really offbeat choice to close out the set with the group's softest sound. I can understand that impulse given the epic arc of this song and the fact that it was quite artfully rendered, I felt the group may have actually benefited from reversing the set order, starting soft and building a contrast toward their faster, more contemporary style. Just the same, a worthy closer to an excellent set.
The Highlands Belles closed out the competition portion of the evening. The all-female group led off with Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z's "Holy Grail." One of the biggest stories throughout this set was the VP, with a young woman owning her part for each song, starting here. Great intensity from the group all around, and good solo work transitioning to as many as three leads at a time.
Next up, James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's World." Once again, the name of the game was intensity. I may have actually reeled this one back a smidge to protect it from getting shout-y. Just the same, I loved the confidence and power the women brought to their vocals--particularly the lead. Moreover, the staging was very deliberate and impactful. Nice fall out moment for the soloist to go unaccompanied, though I couldn't help feeling the group could have gotten even more "bang for their buck" if they'd held back a little earlier on to make that stand alone moment really pop as a climax to the song.
The Belles wrapped up with "Cosmic Love" by Florence and the Machine. All around excellent song selection for this group--constructing a women's power set. Great percussion again, operating as the engine for this piece. Really good selective doubling up of the lead on the choruses. I loved the choice to finish with a wall of sound, lining the front of the stage and driving home the precise identity of this group--powerful, confident, and unified.
As the judges deliberated, the 2013 ICCA Champions, The Nor'easters out of Northeastern University, entertained the crowd. Their set included "Counting Stars," "Sincerely Jane," and the senior send off song for two group members, "Wake Me Up." Perhaps most notably, the group went on to sing Zedd's "Clarity," inviting an excited young boy named Joshua (who was celebrating a birthday) on stage with them to dance and sing the "Clarity" lyric on each chorus. I'm not going to lie--it may have been the cutest thing I've ever seen at an a cappella show, and a near perfect act for a show with lots of parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents in attendance. Just a stellar showing from The Nor'easters, demonstrating that they remain among the top collegiate acts in the world today.
While The Nor'easters performed, I shored up my picks for the night. There was so much to admire about each of the groups, from Unplugged's pulsing energy, to the slick vocal stylings of Limited Edition, to The Mello Divas' artful rendering their unique personality, to Fusions's fullness of sound, to Crimson's combination of power and professionalism, to Vega's all around polish, to Echo Effect's heart-wrenching solos, to Soul'd Out's offbeat sound and emotional resonance, to the way in which The Highlands Belles attacked the stage. I had Vega in second place and Soul'd Out edging out Crimson for third. In the end, though, I felt The Highlands Voices stood tall as the undeniable champions of high school a cappella out of a combination of sheer desire, mature vocals, and an all-around professional presentation. For their opening song, the group sang, "We Own the Night." Indeed, they did.
The Highlands voices were rightfully crowned ICHSA Champions and closed out the night with their encore, a cover of Pharrell's "Happy." That's all for this show. Check back tomorrow for the ACB review of the ICCA Finals!
Mike Chin's Picks for the Night
1. The Highlands Voices
3. Soul'd Out
1. Edge Effect for the full set
2. Limited Edition for "Best I Ever Had"
3. Fusion for "I Won't Let Go"
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. The Highlands Belles for the full set
2. Unplugged for the full set
3. Fusion for the full set
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1.The Highlands Voices for the full set
2. Vega for the full set
3. Unplugged for the full set
1. The Highlands Voices for "Demons"/"Secrets"
2. Soul'd Out for "ET"
3. Unplugged for "Harder To Breathe"/"My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up)"
ICCA Official Results
1. The Highlands Voices
Outstanding Solo: The Highlands Belles for "It's a Man's Man's World" and Limited Edition for "Best I Ever Had"
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: The Highlands Belles and Unplugged for their full sets
Outstanding Choreography: The Highlands Voices for the full set
Outstanding Arrangement: The Highlands Voices for "Demons"/"Secrets"