The Sacramento Choral Calendar
HellaCappella - March 1, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
This was the ninth annual HellaCappella, billed as “NorCal’s premier a cappella showcase,” and hosted by The Spokes, the all-female a cappella group at the University of California, Davis. The event has grown every year, and this year it was held for the first time in Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall, an 1801-seat facility that, to my eye, looked pretty full. I didn’t notice any children, and college students made up the greatest (and noisiest) part of the audience. But there were also a lot of people well past college age.
This was a benefit, as have been all recent HellaCappella concerts. Last year, the beneficiary was the American Cancer Society. This year’s target charity was Teach for America, “a national teaching corps of recent college graduates who commit two years to teach and to effect change in under-resourced urban and rural public schools in America.” Because a lot of the target participants for this organization were in the audience, it was no surprise that a brief video and a talk by a representative of the Sacramento regional office preceded the intermission.
The evening was emceed by UC Davis’ improv comedy troupe, Birdstrike Theater. Their entire 9-member group put on a skit at the start of the show, and two or three members returned to introduce each singing group. To my taste, they weren’t intrusive, were genuinely funny, and managed to establish a good rapport with the audience.
The performing groups were as follows (in order of appearance):
The audience was clearly keyed up for this show and cheered when the lights dimmed as it began. Throughout, people clapped in time to the music when urged by the performers, gave each group a rousing welcome, and expressed their appreciation for each song, not just with applause, but with cheers. Overall, there was tremendous vitality in this event, with the singers and audience members feeding off each other’s energy. Most of the music was up-tempo, with one or two members on their own microphone, providing percussion via beatbox techniques. When they weren’t actually clapping, I bet most audience members were moving some part of their body to this rhythm.
The Spokes, as the host organization, began the show with one song, performed another later on, and ended the evening with a full set. The other groups each performed three numbers. The ensembles ranged in number from 8 to 16 or 17 singers, and each act was tightly choreographed, with a variety of dance moves and formations that maintained visual interest and emphasized the lyrics of the song. There was also a fair amount of comedy that was usually brought out by the choreography. And speaking of visual interest, most groups had a costume or an attempt at a unifying “look.” The two men’s groups had coordinating outfits with ties (and suspenders for On the Rocks); Dil Se were in ethnic costumes (flowing robes and bare feet); Cloud 9 were dressed as tacky tourists; DeCadence came out with capes as if they were super heroes; and the host Spokes were in elegant black outfits, but all different.
Most of the choral singing was essentially backup to one or more soloists who were up front on a microphone. But it was outstanding backup, with complex, but interesting and satisfying harmonies and a lot of variety in dynamics and tempo. While the soloist was doing his or her thing, the rest of the group was giving texture and context, and with the choreography, putting on quite a show.
I recognized very few of the songs, but many were familiar to those of college age in the crowd, including covers for songs popularized by Adele and the Backstreet Boys. I could tell the familiar songs by the screaming when the song began. As for style, I’d say most of the songs (some of them very long) had what I could only describe as a pop flavor. Every once in a while, I thought I perceived a country music influence, and some of the arrangements ventured into vocal jazz territory. I wasn’t conscious of flaws like flatting or sour chords, and I consider the singing to be of uniformly high quality, with good blending, control over a wide range of dynamics, connection with the audience on an emotional level, and outstanding vocal quality from nearly all the soloists. Apart from the soloist or beatboxer on mic, the only other individuals who used a microphone were basses in the men’s or mixed groups, who needed that help to be able to balance the other singers.
I sensed a great deal of variety in the program. There were all-men, all-women, and mixed groups, and each ensemble presented its own distinctive character. Furthermore, I perceived no sameness among the music selections. But the prize for diversity had to go to UC Berkeley’s Dil Se, billed as presenting “South Asian” or Hindi a cappella. Their ethnic costumes were matched by the ethnic music in their set, but it was no less energizing nor entertaining than the music presented by the other groups.
Beyond that, I can’t comment on the individual groups because I couldn’t take notes in the dark, and individual songs weren’t listed on the program. You can read a profile of each of the groups in the linked program. Also, you can click on the name each performing group in the list above to visit their website. They all have videos, so you can get an an idea of the kinds of performances I witnessed.
My overall judgment on this year’s HellaCappella was that it was simply a blast. I’ll confess to being an outsider, trying to appreciate music that I don’t ordinarily listen to. But I didn’t have to try hard. I found the whole concert, with all its diversity, highly listenable and satisfying. More than that, it was energizing and great fun. Except for those with very narrow musical tastes, I’d say that next year’s HellaCappella should be on the “must see” list of everyone who finds their way to this review. Full as Mondavi was last night, I bet HellaCappella will have to expand to two performances in the very near future.