Harmony in South Beach: The Betsy A Cappella Festival Closes on a High Note

Lucky passers-by strolling along Lincoln Road in South Beach Saturday evening found themselves privy to lush blends of song emanating from the open doors of the Miami Beach Community Church. The sanctuary was packed to capacity and resonated with an energy as electric as a small pop show. The free concert, held by the 2015 The Betsy A Cappella Festival (TBAF), served as a final showcase to celebrate the collegiate and professional groups and instructors who all gathered for the weekend’s festivities. In its second year, the festival brings 150 high school singers from around the country to participate in workshops and vocal intensives with professionals from the a cappella industry.

VXN, a four-woman ensemble of instructors who coached students earlier in the day, opened the concert with Nick Jonas’ Chains – and set the tone for the night incredibly high. It is fair to guess that few members of the audience may have expected unaccompanied singers to produce such rhythmic, developed performances, each piece of their set evoking a fully produced track. VXN immediately captured their audience with the magic of a cappella, a choral-derivative vocal genre which features singers performing without instruments, frequently imitating them in their absence. Each member demonstrated impressive vocal versatility and musical sensibility, manipulating placement of sound and range to blend  in simulation of synth harmonies and deep bass. The responsibility of “beat-boxing,” or imitating the sounds of a drum machine into the microphone, was often traded between two members while the other two might interweave the melody with counter voices. In a cover of Avril Lavigne’s ballad “I’m with You,” their ability to match vocal colors resulted in rich harmonic blends.

This opening act gave an insightful look at the nuance of the emerging a cappella genre. Though the practice of choral singing is hardly new, the modern ‘collegiate’ approach steeped in pop vocals and instrumental mimicry departs sharply from more traditional a cappella made famous by organizations like Yale University’s The Whiffenpoofs, or Brown University’s Jabberwocks. In fact, through the rising popularity of competitions like the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella and media such as the Pitch Perfect movie franchise, a cappella has only recently exploded as an industry of its own.

The following act proved to be the most exciting academic group of the evening: Gemini BLVD, an 11-piece co-ed ensemble out of the University of Central Florida, spear-headed by several power-house soloists. Their opening number, a highly choreographed rendition of Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood,’ featured soprano Amanda Gil with both the stage presence and voice to give the pop star a run for her money. The members looped harmonies around her lead in imitation of synths and guitars, and as the number built in intensity to a dance break in half time, they fell into enormous chain gang vocals. Two male singers beat-boxed for a surround-sound effect, and a counter voice echoed Swift’s ‘We are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together’ behind the final choruses. Their second piece, Tori Kelly’s ‘Nobody Love,’ traded between several other impressive soloists who boasted gospel and RnB vocal technique.

Key Harmony, also of UCF, incorporated impressive choreography to ‘Love is a Battlefield,’ and paid hymn-like tribute to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’ in a mash-up with Fun’s millennial anthem ‘We Are Young.’ They alternated between percussive harmonies imitating pipe organs and full cluster chords layering behind the melodies to build effect.

The showcase also featured the Miami Gay Men’s Chorus’ select ensemble Insignia. Before performing, Artistic Director Anthony Cabrera spoke perceptively about the hope that the rising a cappella genre provides for the future of choral traditions, especially in an electronic-driven music industry. The group then performed two numbers, including an American spiritual, unmic’ed and thoughtfully-blended. In this style there are no stars, solos are only offered as echoes of lyric sentiment. The blend is tender, warm, and fills the sanctuary with reverence. The tradition contrasts strongly from the pop technique of the rising a cappella generation, but that’s not to say it should fade in either popularity or relevance on its own.

The A Cappella Group (TAG), an high school coed organization out of Fort Myers, FL, followed with a high energy set that whipped the audience into excitement. An alumn’s original “Burn it Down,’ elicited clapping from the pews, with a soloist proffering the melody and message in a full gospel belt. The final group, Voice Box, also delivered Southern church-style harmonies blended exactingly, with bright vocals and well-executed choreography. They were also the only ensemble to feature male soloists.

The audience was immersed in a special closing performance that brought all ensembles back on stage, and padded the ranks with high schoolers who workshopped during the festival. Ben Bram, a Grammy award-winning arranger and member of Pentatonix, conducted for his haunting arrangement of Rihanna’s ‘Stay’,  featuring singer/songwriter and The Voice Top 5 contestant (season 8) India Carney. The classically trained Carney approached the ballad with prayer-like tenderness, occasionally embellishing with pop melismas for emotional appeal. The hushed treatment gave the audience just enough of a tantalizing peak into the full size and range of her instrument to captivate and leave them breathless for more. A pin could be heard as it finished, making it by far the performance of the evening. The final number featured scores of voices in an uplifting 21-part arrangement of Coldplay’s ‘Sky Full of Stars,’ directed by The Sing Off vocal coach Rob Dietz and brought the audience to their feet. 

“It takes a village to raise a festival,” the Betsy Hotel VP of Marketing, Philanthropy, and Programs Deborah Briggs remarked in her closing words, and what a village the TBAF family proves to be. Saturday’s concert was immersive, electrifying, and testament to the community choral singing promotes. From the youngest high school members of the festival, to the oldest audience members present and everyone in between, no one could help but be enriched by the harmony of song in such an outstanding showcase.

The 2015 Betsy A Cappella Festival ran for two days from Oct. 23-24, and was made possible by the Betsy Hotel’s arts programming. For more information on Saturday’s concert and future related events, visit http://www.thebetsyacappella.com

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