Review of 2012 Harmony Sweepstakes National Finals

In case you weren't able to attend, here's a review of the 28th Annual National Harmony Sweepstakes held on Saturday, May 12, 2012, at the Marin Veteran's Auditorium in San Rafael, California.  The Auditorium is the very last design of famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who died before the auditorium was built.  The project was carried out and completed by two of Wright's students who had studied at Taliesin, Wright's home and school.

Seating capacity of the Veteran's Memorial Auditorium is close to 2,000.  It is a designated historic California landmark which has also earned the next highest historic designation:  that of National Landmark of the United States of America.  How appropriate that the winners of the eight regional Harmony Sweepstakes competitions held throughout our nation should convene for the Nationals in Marin Veteran's Auditorium.

Though all the regional winners are flown in and their expenses are paid (that is their prize for winning their regional competition), make no mistake about it, the performers make sacrifices in order to follow through in appearing on stage for the National Finals.  This year, contestants flew in from as far away as Poland.  Some have had to walk away from families who could really use their support.  Some are mothers, daughters, fathers and sons, and this is Mother's Day weekend.  But winning the Sweeps could be a real life changer.  Scouts from the networks are known to frequent these competitions. 

Following the tradition that last year's champs are this year's hosts, Da Capo  (2011 National Sweeps Champs) came onstage promptly at 8 p.m. to sing a set for us, one of their songs being "Get Happy."  Not only are they accomplished singers of the barbershop style, but they were very entertaining hosts.  They had energy, style, and senses of humor.  They introduced each group with a little "tag" or "jingle" that one of the Da Capo members wrote and arranged.  They said they had an incredible year, and during intermission I went to find them to ask them to expand on that statement for me, but I didn't see any of them. 

Our Emcee for the evening was the glamorous Angie Doctor.  Angie is not shy in front of a mic.  Her life's work includes studio singing, live performances, commercials, voice-overs, recording projects, quartet singer (soprano), songwriter, guest artist and public speaker (like tonight!).  Her bio is impressive, and Angie is impressive in person.  She honors us by glamming it up, and she sparkled behind the podium. 

After Da Capo opened the competition with their set, Angie explained the rules and introduced the judges for the evening:

Steve Baker:  Steve is the executive director of the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, a non-profit community arts organization in Berkeley, California.  According to its mission statement, Freight & Salvage is dedicated to "promoting public awareness and understanding of traditional music—music that is rooted in and expressive of the great variety of regional, ethnic, and social cultures of peoples throughout the world."  Steve is a performing musician himself.  He plays guitar and performs at clubs and private events in the Bay Area. 

Charles Eisler:  The manager and producer of sensational live theater, Charles has produced coast to coast (including Broadway) and has managed national tours of both domestic and international acts.  His résumé includes ownership and operation of the Mason Street Theatre in San Francisco and the Union Square Playhouse, both of which were venues for hit productions.  But wait, there's more!  Mr. Eisler is also a writer and at present is co-writing a brand new musical.

Shai Fishman:  Shai is an award-winning composer, arranger, and music director with many original musical theater productions to his name.  He operates a production house and music label and is also the LP restoration and digitization project leader for a dot com company.  He has a hit a cappella musical opening at Marines' Memorial Theatre in San Francisco in June.

Jesse Hamlin:  This judge not only has an ear for music, but also has an eye for art.  For many years Jesse was a jazz critic and arts reporter. His work has appeared in print in California and New York publications as well as online.  He currently writes about jazz, Latin, and classical music.  Curiously, although he is an award-winning writer, Mr. Hamlin seems a bit shy when writing about himself.  I say this because his bio on the Harmony Sweepstakes website is brief.  Don't be fooled. Remember the well-known saying, "Still waters run deep."

Chloe Veltman:  Representing members of the fairer sex, Chloe is the host and executive producer of a weekly public radio show about the human voice and the vocal music scene.  The show is syndicated and is also a podcast series.  Chloe's shows are diverse and entertaining.  Her upcoming presentation will be about the ancient global connection between singing and beer, which should be very informative.  Chloe is also a singer with a passion for performing in small vocal ensembles. 

The bios of all the judges, as well as that of this evening's emcee, as well as that of tonight's hosts, as well as those of all the competitors can be found here.

And now, a word about our sponsors: 

The contest would not be possible without the support of Primarily A Cappella Singers.comGive it up for Primarily A Cappella Singers.com!  WooHoo!!  Hip-Hip-Hurray for Primarily A Cappella Singers.com. 

Also sponsoring the 28th Annual competition is A Cappella News, bringing us uncompromised views of the unaccompanied voice.  Anything that's happening in the world of a cappella is covered by A Cappella News.  A thousand thank yous to A Cappella News!  Way to go A Cappella News!

The a cappella singing group that wins tonight's competition will win CD duplication of 1,000 copies, au gratis, courtesy of Discmakers. WooHoo!!  Let's hear it for Discmakers!  Yay!  GoooOOO Discmakers!

Okay—on with the show.

The podium was taken over by Da Capo.  Unlike other multi-member hosts, who would have one member speaking at a time, all four members of Da Capo were behind the podium for each presentation of the performers.  Their high energy was infectious. 

Da Capo sang the introduction of the first group, Rooftop Rhythm, a barbershop quartet.  When the one member of Da Capo said, "Barbershop," another member cheered.  This was a mostly consistent happening throughout the evening's program. 

So on come the Chicago Regional Champs--Rooftop Rhythm.  In true barbershop style, they all dressed alike in blue striped suits with lime green ties, lime green hankies in their breast pockets, and lime green shoes.  At one point during their set, one member asked, "Can you see us okay?" which got a laugh from the audience.  They sang both up tunes and ballads with crescendos and decrescendos.  Their first two songs were "Brand New Day" and "Cry Me a River." 

This was their first trip to California, and one of them told us about the party he had been to the night before, the "cast party" for the Sweeps participants.  He mentioned how nice it was to be able to party and not have to worry about driving home.  He told a story of going to one party recently and deciding to take the bus home.  The bus came to a sobriety checkpoint, but because it was a bus, the authorities waved it through.  The speaker said he was really glad, because it was the first time he had ever driven a bus! 

Before their third song, the speaking member of Rooftop Rhythm asked if it was okay for them to sing us a religious song.  We said, "Sure," and he said, "Great.  We'd like to take up a collection," which got another laugh from the audience.  But then the speaker said they had actually forgotten to bring the collection plate, so instead of taking up a collection, they sang "Swing Down Chariot." 

The last song they sang was one near and dear to my own heart—"Rally Round the Flag."  Rooftop's version was arranged by Rooftop members Jacob Oxley and Ashley York.  I love patriotic songs, and "Rally" was the first song my fife and drum corp always played whenever we were in a parade.  It was our warm-up song, and it was a delight to hear it sung in four-part harmony.  It was the first time I had ever heard words to "Rally." 

Rooftop Rhythm may have gone overtime.  They got the 30-second warning pole when they were at the beginning of their last song.  Going over the time limit means the group cannot win the competition.  Nevertheless, their set was entertaining.  It was a joy to hear such beautifully blended harmonies and a real spirit lifter to hear something patriotic.  It occurred to me that in this time when Americans have little faith in their politicians, I'd rather listen to uplifting patriotic songs than listen to speeches by windbags who consistently deliver  asinine "promises."  While our politicians bring us down (unless we are of the wealthy 1 percent), it is groups like Rooftop Rhythm that have the power to bring us back up with their spirited music such as "Rally Round the Flag."

In introducing the next competitor, Da Capo gave a bit about someone getting knocked out, whereby three members proceeded to pound the fourth member over the head, knocking him out.  He fell to the ground (behind the podium).  Da Capo sang from 1 to 10 (in harmony, always in harmony), and when the fourth member did not rise back up, they proclaimed he was "down for the count."

On walked the Los Angeles Regional Champs, Down 4 The Count.  They kept the prevalent energy alive and sang in the jazz style, their first number being "It's All Right With Me" followed by "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," which was arranged by Down member Colleen Keene.  For their third number, four of the members stuck antennae on their heads.  The fifth member wore a hat covered with what looked like tin foil.  A special arrangement (by Colleen Keene) of "Can't Get Abducted," the lead singer with the tin-foil hat was upset that all the other members had been abducted by aliens, who for some reason passed over the lead singer, which he couldn't understand.  Everything exciting always happened to the other members, but not him.  More laughs from the audience.

When Da Capo announced GQ, they discussed what GQ could possibly mean.  One member thought it might have something to do with a goat, and he held up a big cutout of a goat (which looked like a white pygmy goat to me) which was pasted on a board.  Where he got the cutout of a goat remains a mystery, but time was ticking, so Da Capo went on to explain that GQ was a "Girl Quartet," and when he said that, he made air quotes, which clued all of us in as to what GQ really stood for.  He said they sang in the barbershop style, and at the word "barbershop" the one Da Capo cheered.  We were expecting this by now.  Da Capo sang an intro tag for GQ just like they did for all the other competitors.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Champs, GQ took the stage and sang "Timshel," arranged by Katie Gillis and Katie MacDonald, two of the GQs.  Their second song, "Samson," arranged by Katie Gillis, was kind of serious, like "Timshel" was, but for their third number, they said they wanted to present something on the happier side.  They were, after all, happy kinds of gals, they said, so they sang a medley of "I'm Into Something Good/Happy Together."  They looked beautiful up there on stage in their casual blazers, sparkly white tops, form-fitting jean-styled leggings and (very) high heels.  Not to be outdone by the preceding groups in the energy department, GQ boogied on down to their "Happy" medley.  The audience felt it, loved it, and cheered loudly at its conclusion. 

The next competing group flew in all the way from Poland.  Da Capo spit out the few polish words they knew, but I wasn't sure if the group was really from Poland or not.  Although I had been to regional competitions before, this was my first National championship and I didn't realize the Sweeps were known worldwide.  Each competing group competes in the region closest to them, which turned out to be New York for the next group who actually did come in from Poland. 

After Da Capo sang their tag, the New York Regional Champs, Audiofeels, took the stage.  I immediately noticed their beatboxer had on one read sneaker and one white sneaker, the colors of the Polish flag.  They sang "Something In the Way," arranged by member Jaroslaw Weidner, followed by "Kiss From a Rose," arranged by member Marek Lewandowski. 

Audiofeels explained that they sing in the Vocal Play style, which means they imitate instruments with their voices.  During their last song, "Seven Nation Army," arranged by Jaroslaw Weidner and Marek Lewandowski, they also mimed which instruments they were "playing," and among their imitated orchestra were drums, violins, cellos, trumpets, and guitars.  I'm pretty sure one of the guitars was a bass guitar, but they may also have been singing a six- or twelve-string, it was hard to tell. 

Audiofeels had just as much energy as Da Capo and all the other competitors.  They were the last group to perform before intermission, and even at this point in the program, I did not know which group I thought was the best.  The level of talent was pretty equal from all competitors so far—it was an awesome level of talent—and I was glad I was not a judge. 

Emcee Angie came on to announce intermission, but before the house lights came up, she told us that when Audiofeels flew in from Poland, their plane had actually been struck by lightning—Yikes!—which had caused an ungodly hours-long delay.  Keeping in mind this was their second trip to America in a very short time frame (they had flown in for the New York Regional contest), their true dedication to their art is very apparent. 

Anyhoo, there was a 15-minute intermission filled with the usual intermission activities of smokers stepping outside to smoke, can't-live-without-my-cell-phoners stepping outside to make those oh-so-necessary calls, the emptying of the bladders and bowels, the purchasing of CDs and incredibly expensive drinks and snacks ($2 for a cookie—cripes!), and the shuffling about of those needing to stretch their legs.  Nothing notable to report about intermission except that everyone seemed to be in an unusually gay mood, which I'm guessing was a rub-off of the high level of energy extended to the audience by the performers and the hosts of the evening.

After intermission, Emcee Angie Doctor once again graced us from behind the podium.  She pointed out that inside our programs was a flyer advertising VocaPeople, the hit a cappella musical comedy which was composed, arranged and musically directed by Shai Fishman, one of tonight's judges.  VocaPeople is opening at Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco in June, and Angie said that there is, awarded to an audience member, free admission to the person who has the insert with "FREE" written on it.  The woman in front of me started waving her program wildly, but when I asked her if she won she said that no, she didn't, she was only joshing.  There were no wild cries from the audience, no outbursts or any other signs of excitement from any of the nearly-2,000 members in attendance.  House lights were down, so I don't know if anyone actually won or if the flyer with "FREE" written on it was one that was perhaps not distributed.  I was disappointed that I didn't win, but I bet many felt the same way. 

Da Capo took the podium once again and when they said the next contestant sang in the barbershop style, the member known for cheering wildly whenever the word barbershop was uttered was silent.  So the audience cheered instead.  (That's one thing about a Sweeps audience.  They can actually be counted on to participate.) 

Da Capo sang their introductory tag, and on walked the Boston Regional Champs, Foreign Exchange.  Foreign Exchange members hail from USA, Canada, and the Netherlands.  They sang "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" followed by the lovely "Brahms Lullaby," arranged by Greg Gabriella.  (I'm not sure who he is.  He isn't a member of the female quartet, and lead singer Maria Gabriella's husband's name is Mike, according to Foreign Exchange's website).  The thing that struck me as impressive when Foreign Exchange sang the lullaby was their even sound level.  They started out singing in unison, but when they broke out into harmony, all four parts were at the same sound level, no one part overshadowing the other.  And what lovely harmonies they were.  Their last song was "No, No Norman."  Foreign Exchange performed with plenty of theatrics.  The audience reaction was quite favorable.

Da Capo put plenty of zeal into introducing the San Francisco Regional Champs, Sing Theory.  They opened with "I Love Loving you," an original by member Juliet Green and non-member Pat Green and arranged by member Dave Duran.  Pat might be Juliet's father, as she spoke a bit about how he originally wrote a song about all the things he loved, and he had loved plenty of women.  Juliet then spiffed the song so that it conformed to the present.  "I Love Loving You" was followed by "Alone Together," arranged by member Michelle Hawkins. 

The style is of Sing Theory is Vocalese, which added to the diversity of the competition.  I had heard them sing when they won their regional.  At that time, by the time they took the stage I was already burned out by too much jazz, but at these National Sweeps there was such a varied program that I appreciated Sing Theory more.  The rest of the audience appreciated them, as well, and when Sing Theory asked for audience participation in their last song, "Higher Love" arranged by members Michelle Hawkins and Dave Duran, the audience was more than happy to oblige.  The group got the 30-second warning during the last song, but I believe they wrapped it up without going overtime. 

Da Capo came back on to announce the last performers of the evening, explaining that the group receives plenty of comments about their name.  The hosts sang their tag, and on walked the Pacific Northwest Regional Champs, Six Appeal.  They opened their set with "Circle of Life" (arranged by member Jordan Roll).  The lead singer stood in front of the mic and all the other members were in a semi-circle behind him.  The song was complete with animal noises, which drew laughs from the audience. 

Their second song was "On Your Love," an original by member Andrew Berkowitz, who invited us to sing along if we knew the words (more laughs from the audience).  Then followed "Ordinary People" (arranged by Andrew Berkowitz).  The set wrapped up with "I will Survive," during which the Six broke out into some choreography, which went over very well with the audience. 

All competitors had now performed, which meant it was time for the audience to vote for their favorite act.  Emcee Angie explained that this is done by popping one's ticket stub into the box which bore the group's photo and name.  These boxes were placed on the stage as well as in the lobby.  With 2,000 audience members all going to and fro, you can imagine, if you were not there, how exciting an event this must have been.  It is taken seriously by audience members, but it was a tough choice.  Competitors this year were equally good, so I had to consult my notes and vote for the group who sang the songs I loved the best because I was familiar with them.

While votes were being counted for audience favorite, Da Capo came on to sing one last time as 2012 hosts.  Their "Eight Days a Week" had feet tapping and hands clapping, but their Sousa song, "Stars and Stripes Forever," just blew me away.  Again, I am a sucker for patriotic songs and believe in the power of same to lift America's spirits.  Indeed, at the end of the competition, people's spirits were quite high.  One woman in the audience who was sitting near me said she has been to many of these competitions and this year's was the best.  Even Emcee Angie commented that as many times as she has participated in the Sweeps, she thought this year's was the best.  And on my way out of the theater, someone behind me asked someone else, "So, what did you think?"  The someone else replied, "It exceeded my expectations." 

I myself had been a little concerned about the level of excitement I would encounter at the Sweeps.  It was a long trip for me to the auditorium, and I traveled solo.  I knew that if I felt boredom during the competition, my solo drive home would be awfully uncomfortable because I would be tired.  But instead, the level of energy was so high throughout the night that I was revved up and did not feel tired until the last 20 minutes of my long drive, but by that time I was in familiar territory and knew I would be okay. 

Such was the level of entertainment experienced during the 28th Annual Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival.

All the competitors were brought back on stage.  As each was announced, a plaque was handed to one member of the group.  When all members were on stage, the winners were announced:

Audience Favorite:  Six Appeal

Best Original Arrangement:  "Timshel," arranged by Katie Gillis and Katie MacDonald of GQ

Best Original Song:  "On Your Love," by Andrew Berkowitz of Six Appeal

Third Place:  Foreign Exchange

Second Place: GQ

First Place:  Six Appeal

I must also mention an award not announced at the podium.  It is my very own **Best Bio** award, which goes to Six Appeal.  (There is no monetary compensation to accompany this prestigious and coveted award.)  Click this link and scroll down to read their story about a dejected vocalist who walks into a bar.  Absolutely perfect, gentlemen.   During intermission I sought out Six Appeal to ask about their bio.  I was told that the story was true.  After the Six Appeal member and I both laughed, he told me the bio is an original story written by one of their members. 

I've already mentioned that this year's competition was considered the best by many people.  Reflecting on the reason why, I've discerned it must have been Da Capo's humorous and innovative hosting style, as well as the senses of humor displayed by many of the contestants.  Da Capo set and consistently maintained a high level of energy, which all the contestants picked up on, which the audience felt and carried.  For me, this being my first National Sweeps, this is the competition that sets the bar for succeeding competitions.  Six Appeal, as next year's hosts, have big shoes to fill, but with their own delightful senses of humor, displayed on stage as well as during casual conversation, I am already looking forward to being in attendance.

And that, my friends, as they say in the biz, is a wrap.

Stacy Lynne
Campbell, CA

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