Thursday 30 January 2014

Singing with a swing: the London A Cappella Festival

London A Cappella Festival: King's Place
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jan 25 2014
Star rating: 4.0

A cappella bliss at the London A Cappella Festival with SLIXS and others

The London A Cappella Festival hosted by Kings Place promised four days of concerts and workshops for lovers of the voice. Jam packed days provided a cappella bliss for the diehards, while an exciting atmosphere and top notch concerts were an upbeat adventure for those only able to dip a toe in. I managed to get to one workshop and concert on Saturday - but that actually meant that I saw four or five acts because the concerts all had support acts, and there were free mini concerts all day in the downstairs foyer.

The workshop I went to was held by Dominic Peckham, a conductor and vocal coach with projects as far apart as the Royal Opera House ‘RM19’ Youth Chorus and Sing Up singing in schools. Since it was billed as being for any level, I took along a friend, who was has sung with an a cappella choir for just over a year, to gauge the opinion of someone newer to choral singing. However, from the energy and enthusiasm in the room it quickly transpired that most people were confident singers who had been to many of the other workshops already.

Despite this there was some confusion at the start. Dominic began without any kind of introduction – launching into clapping rhythms which we had to clap back at him, then adding in stamping and some sounds. This warm-up was followed by questions designed to make to people think about why they sing in a group, and how they sing, especially vowels and posture. The rest of the time was spent mainly on exercises designed to improve standing, breathing, and vowel positioning.

Fun canons led on to more complex three and four part harmony based on simple phrases so that we were not hampered by sheet music. There was a brief foray into a piece by Mozart – but this was quickly dropped (perhaps there were few sight readers present and Dominic adapted to the group) – and ended on an upbeat four part tune that had everyone bobbing about.

Under Dominic’s tuition the group produced a much better sound than would be otherwise expected from a bunch of amateur strangers. It is a hard call deciding what to focus on when presented with a mixed ability class. I found his insights into breathing and vowels an interesting reminder, while my friend was a little overwhelmed, especially when the music came out and we were split into voice parts. Nevertheless we both felt inspired and vocally freer by the end of the workshop.

The mini-concerts I caught were Millfield Camerata and The Sons of Pitches. Millfield Camerata is an award winning school choir from Somerset. They sang a mixture of 80’s classics such as ‘I just wanna dance’ and ‘Sweet dreams are made of these’, and more modern tunes, all given their own personal interpretation. With their clear, sweet sound, it was easy to see why they have been so popular. The Sons of Pitches from Birmingham attacked a cappella in a different way. More reliant on amplified sound, which led to a few issues with volume balance, this group had a couple of boys singing beat box as well as the usual harmonies. Dressed in white boiler suits they certainly demanded attention as they sang a selection of pop songs and mash-ups.

SLIXS were supported by Penny Arcade. This young beat box pop quartet began with Justin Timberlake’s version of ‘Cry me a river’ to disco lighting. Lots of changes in texture and dynamic built a framework where everyone got to sing lead vocals. This was followed by a jazzy rendition of ‘How High the Moon’. Their final number was a mash-up (their own arrangement) including ‘I like to move it’, ‘Sweet dreams are made of these’ (which we had heard earlier by Millfield Camerata), ‘You spin me right round’ and ‘Get the party started’. Fun and light-hearted their vocals were humorously skilful and a clever choice for lead into the main concert by SLIXS.

SLIXS (formerly known as Stouxingers) are one girl and five guys from Germany who take a cappella to the next level. All the music performed was either written by, or arranged by, Michael Eimann. Their opening number ‘Light’ was relaxed and restrained at the start, but this was interrupted by bass beats and led straight into a funky rendition of ‘When love comes to town’, and their personalities started to come through.

Some chatting between numbers helped to explain what they were doing. Their obvious good humour and joy for what they were doing came through in their performance. Sometimes singing in English or French, they also used a made up language – sounds which could be words and conveyed more emotion than generalised scatting, but were still nonsense, such as the beautiful ‘Tired with all thesE’ and ‘Bodey-Percussion’ (which involved audience participation).

SLIXS have also attacked J. S. Bach, giving Bach’s music a completely new spin. The idea for their version of ‘Goldberg Variations’ was developed as part of the soundtrack for film “Mensch Kotschie" by Norbert Baumgarten. SLIXS treatment transformed this work, adding an extra dimension of meaning, and was a delightful contrast to the rest of the concert. This was followed by their cover of an Irie Révoltés Song, ‘Le Mouvement’, which won them a CARA (Contemporary A cappella Recording Awards) in 2013.

A spirited version of ‘Sign of the times’ led into the Spanish sounding ‘I know you know’ while after the interval there was more funk with ‘Jungle Boogie’ and the brilliant ‘Don’t go chasing waterfalls’, which contrasted with the complete change of tempo and style for ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’.

Their final song showcased the sounds a human voice (for the right human) can make and had the audience out of their seats. SLIXS are very talented, very expressive and a joy to watch. They were a perfect end to my experience of the London a cappella festival.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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