Voices of California
The Great American Roadtrip - May 3, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
It was tough finding parking at Sacramento City College on this Saturday night when the city’s new soccer team, Sacramento Republic FC, was to play the second home game of their season. But for a Voices of California (VoCal) concert, just about any degree of hassle will be amply rewarded – and that was the case tonight. This was their first concert at the newly remodeled Sac City Performing Arts Center, an excellent setting for a quality show.
A big part of recent VoCal concerts is a story: a skit that provides a framework for a long set of songs. This time it was “The Great American Roadtrip.” Three men – grandfather, father and son – were heading east on Route 66 to see the country, and that set the stage for the following songs:
For this part of the show, everyone in the chorus was dressed casually, and there were props, including a cut-out convertible, and a fair amount of dialog among the actors. But from the first mellow sounds of “Route 66,” we in the audience got what we came for: barbershop harmony refined to the highest degree. Yet there’s more to an internationally competitive chorus like this than the sound they make: it’s the spirit they project. Looking across the risers, everyone is alive and expressive. I’ve noticed that barbershoppers’ arms don’t stay at their sides when they sing: they’re always moving, and it shows that each man feels what he is singing. Then there is the choreography on many of the songs that further channels and enhances the energy of the singing. Being on the receiving end of that energy is profoundly invigorating (as it was for the elderly lady sitting behind me who could barely stand and walk, but who couldn’t contain her enthusiasm when we chatted at intermission).
There is a lot to look at during one of these shows, and one focus of attention is Director Gabe Caretto. He’s clearly the spark that fires the pistons in that well-tuned singing machine. He’s fun to watch as he moves around, coaxing the nuances of the song, cuing the emotion, and sometimes seeming more like a cheerleader than a director. He’s not above the singing, but very much a part of it, and you feel that especially when he turns to the audience for the tag at the end of a song.
If you think you know barbershop, but you haven’t seen a performance by a competitive barbershop chorus like the Voices of California, then my friend, you don’t know contemporary barbershop. Apart from the staging, skits, props and choreography, there is singing artistry going on. I was especially conscious through all these numbers of the nuanced crescendos and diminuendos, the refined closing of a voiced sound, the exquisite rubato, and of course, the blend of voices. It may not have been a perfect blend at every moment, but it sure sounded perfect to me and oh so satisfying to the ear.
I’ve said before that barbershoppers consider quartet singing to be the highest representation of the art. And quartet competitions are so tough that when you get an international championship quartet to perform at an event like this evening’s, it’s a big deal and you figure you’re in for something special. Even then, I was taken aback at the entrance of the LoveNotes, the 2014 champions in the Queens of Harmony Sweet Adelines International Quartet Competition. These young women came out dressed in floor-length purple gowns (low-cut with spaghetti straps), sparkling belts and over-the-top rhinestone crowns. I'm thinking to myself, “When you come out dressed like that you'd better be prepared to deliver” – and did they ever!
Sitting in the dark of the theater, I couldn’t record the name of each song, and there were several that were new to me. But I was blown away by the complexity of the arrangements. And the harmony itself was breathtaking, with each song, each phrase carefully crafted into a unified presentation that was simply astounding. Apart from the quality of the singing, some of these songs were absolutely hilarious, especially a clever (and incredibly difficult!) take-off on “Rhapsody in Blue” that included parodies of a number of classical tunes. Another was “I Used to Call Him Baby” (about the former boyfriend who married her mother). The songwriting and arranging for these ladies was as impressive as their singing. Another humorous piece was “I’m Hooked on a Feeling” in which they illustrated – vocally – the difficulties they encounter trying to rehearse together via Skype. Their last selection was another tour de force, a remarkable arrangement of music from The Phantom of the Opera. Each of these young women (age 23 to 26 and singing since they were 11 to 14) could be a solo artist in her own right. And each song in their set was a jewel: many faceted, perfect, highly crafted and ultimately brilliant.
After the intermission, VoCal started the second half with “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (with altered words) and a “Fishin’ Medley” that included the theme from the Andy Griffith Show, “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Ain’t She Sweet.” As before, there was a bit of a skit going on with a lot of fishing poles among the singers. The highlight came when a couple of the singers started casting their lines out into the audience!
A bit of dialog set the scene for introducing Crossroads, the 2009 Barbershop Harmony Society International Championship Quartet. These middle-aged men in 3-piece suits made quite a contrast to the young women of LoveNotes, and that was the subject of a lot of humor the men offered at their own expense. It was interesting to see that most of the women’s humor came in the context of their music, while most of the men’s humor came in the patter between songs, though several of their songs were themselves hilarious, such as “Blue Bayou” featuring the toupé that “blew by you” or the medley of “every American folk song you ever heard” that was incredibly complicated, delivered at an amazingly fast tempo, and laugh-out-loud funny. But of course, it wasn’t all joking around, and the harmonizing was sophisticated, accurate and completely entertaining.
VoCal returned to end the show, first with a piece called – appropriately – “Harmony.” And then there was an inspiring presentation of “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and “One Voice” in which the two songs were sung separately and then interwoven, with both quartets joining the chorus onstage and solos from a singer in each quartet. Even before the sound of the final chord had died away, just about every person in the audience was on their feet, not just applauding, but cheering another great show from a chorus that has become a local treasure.
(Click here to open, in another window, the part of the program that highlights the performers and support team.)