The Sacramento Choral Calendar



Concert Review

Barbershop Harmony Society

Far Western District, Northeast Division
Convention & Contest - May 19, 2012

by Dick Frantzreb

This day-long event at Folsom High School was the first level of competition in the Barbershop Harmony Society.  Of the 9 choruses and 15 quartets competing, the best would go to the Far West District Convention & Contest in Mesa, AZ in October, and the best in that competition would go on to the International Convention.  I don’t know a lot about barbershop singing or the intricacies of the Barbershop Harmony Society, and today’s event felt more like a convention than a concert, but that didn’t make it any less entertaining.  And any member of the public could have bought a ticket.

I was anxious to see the chorus competition part of the day, because 6 of the 9 competitors are choruses whose performances are covered in the Sacramento Choral Calendar.  And I have to say that the whole thing made an excellent show.  These choruses work for months to develop their “contest set” – two songs that are as polished as they can make them, including outfits and choreography that can often be quite elaborate.  In my opinion, it all paid off.  I was delighted from the first mellow chords that I heard.

The event was emceed by the President of the Far Western District, and performances by the choruses were interspersed with organizational announcements and presentations.  The singing began with a pick-up chorus of a variety of experienced singers from different choruses and quartets, who sang a couple of “polecats,” a group of 12 songs that every barbershopper knows.   This was followed by the parade of competitors over the next 2 hours.

Most of the choruses consisted of from 16 to 25 singers.  Reno’s Silver Dollar Chorus was an exception with 38 men.  So was Sacramento’s American River Chorus with 65 singers.  The smaller choruses seemed populated mostly by men of retirement age, though there were a fair number of men under 50.  Regardless of age, there was no doubt in my mind that the singing was pure fun for all involved.  It was pure fun for me, too, and I could hardly stop smiling.  There were a lot of sweet tunes, familiar and unfamiliar – expressively presented.  And there was a fair amount of humor, too.  A highlight for me was Placerville’s Gold Rush Chorus singing, “How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?”  But there were many highlights.  And there was a technique used by many of the groups that had enormous effect, and is apparently increasingly common in barbershop numbers.  When the song ends in a crescendo, the director turns to face the audience, cutting off the chorus with a gesture of triumph.  It has an amazingly dramatic effect.

The winning performance was delivered by the American River Chorus, which put on quite a show, with not only excellent singing, but elaborate choreography and comic bits.  Also exceptionally entertaining was the second-place effort of the Silver Dollar Chorus.  It almost seemed a pity to rank and judge these efforts, because they were all such fun to watch – and hear.  But competition is the driving force for excellence in the Society, and the judging was very much in evidence, with 8 judges scoring each performance on well-thought-out criteria.  (Click here for a page from the program that explains both the nature of barbershop singing and the judging standards.)  Although it appeared that everyone on stage was having great fun, I can imagine that it might be pretty daunting to perform in front of your peers, and know that everything you’re going to do will be evaluated by them with an experienced and critical eye.

But that overlooks the fact that this whole activity is built on camaraderie, which was plainly evident in the interactions I observed among people and what appeared to be so many long-standing friendships among members of different choruses.  And there’s an almost religious fervor to this activity which is so highly organized on an international basis.  That came out in a presentation by the man who was, I believe, either the President or one of the Development Directors of The Harmony Foundation, whose purpose is to promote barbershop singing among young men.  He described the experience of a young man from a dysfunctional family who was introduced to barbershop in high school and carried a love for it through a succession of challenging life experiences.  When the speaker said he was the “young man” for whom barbershopping led from a destructive life path to a positive one, the entire audience rose to their feet with applause.  It was extraordinarily inspiring – especially in light of the fact that he said he was from Grass Valley and got his start with the Sierranaders Chorus, one of the 9 in the competition.

Despite the convention-like features of the day, and the fairly long (5 minute or so) intervals between the performances of the choruses, this was excellent entertainment for anyone who has the least appreciation of choral singing.  When the day began, there were only about 150 people in the audience.  By the end of the chorus competition, the crowd numbered about 400, but there should have been a lot more.  It might be tough for the average person to spend a whole day at an event like this:  personally, I had to miss what was, no doubt, a brilliant quartet competition and the “Show of Champions” that capped the formal convention activities.  But hearing those 9 barbershop choruses give their best performance was a great way to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon.  Experienced barbershoppers can probably appreciate this event the most, but anyone can enjoy the music, both familiar and unfamiliar – and delight in the showmanship on display.

All 2012 Reviews