London A Cappella Festival (Jan 15) | Review

I was beside myself with enthusiasm when I heard about the third annual London A Cappella Festival, curated by the world renowned, multi-Grammy winning, unaccompanied harmony group The Swingles. What a splendid way to kick start 2011; an event dedicated to that element of music closest to my heart: harmonies!

The festival’s grand finale took place at Kings Place in Central London last Saturday 15 January. The day was, not surprisingly, chock-a-block with fun activities. I signed myself up to a workshop and the main live events and was away.

The Swingles’ Voice Camp was an ear-opener for all those serious about group singing with increased aural astuteness. I anticipated the class to take place in a wide open space with minimal furniture for maximised freedom of movement. Instead we got a lecture hall which was ideal for those of us sneaking in a bit late but not for easy interaction with each other. Still, the Swingles made the best of it.

Some of the session’s highlights included a peculiar team building exercise involving strangers following each others’ hand movements; a very good visual reminder of how essential it is to tune ourselves to each other’s sound when singing communally. There was an improvisation exercise involving each member of the sizeable number of attendees having to make a random noise on the beat with as little pre-meditation as possible. The most enjoyable moment by far was the loop game in which a brave volunteer was instructed to split the room into four parts, assigning each section an improvised ostinato to be sung simultaneously, creating that gorgeous layered effect not dissimilar to that of a loop machine.

With a day packed full of events the workshops only lasted an hour each, which might sound long enough but as with all things fun, the minutes flew by. Having done my fair share of awkward, seemingly pointless performance-related warm-up and team building exercises in the past, I found The Swingles’ Voice Camp one of the most useful.

The evening brought two live shows by Eclectic Voices followed by The Swingles themselves.

The setting of Kings Place’s Hall One was pitch-perfect for the gigs; sufficiently spacious yet at once intimate. Eclectic Voices got the Festival’s grand finish underway with amongst others, Take 6’s ‘A Quiet Place’ and ‘Five Flower Songs’ by Benjamin Britten. This exemplifies how much the choir live up to their name. Consisting of singers of all ages and musical backgrounds, their repertoire ranges from Gospel to JS Bach. The group tackle some fiendishly difficult, goose bump-inducing arrangements courtesy of musical director Scott Stroman. Apart from the tendency to slide a semi-tone or so pitch-wise, Eclectic largely succeed.

On Saturday the Voices enlisted the help of the Swingles bass singers, Toby Hug and Kevin Fox to provide an orally-simulated jazz rhythm section on a few numbers. Eclectic’s rendition of the Breakfast at Tiffany standard ‘Moon River’ took an already beautiful song to higher heights. Stroman’s version also incorporated some lovely scatting by Rosanna Brandi. In fact, Ms Brandi and fellow contralto, Irene Serra, provided the prettiest lead vocals of the night.

As well as covers, Eclectic Voices sing original material composed by Stroman who, incidentally, is an accomplished jazz vocalist in his own right as demonstrated on his fabulous interpretation of Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’, originally arranged for and performed by none other than the Swingles. Eclectic completed their set with this gem; its liveliness making it a fitting farewell. They might be an amateur choir on paper but are certainly professional in execution.

It was an auspicious start to what turned out to be an overall superb evening of music.

Later that night, looking very glitzy and glam – with a costume change during the interval – the Swingles [pictured above] kicked off their gig with a heavenly (and appropriately re-verbed) rendition of Falla’s lullaby ‘Nana’. Like Eclectic Voices before them the Swingles have a very diverse catalogue of work. Theirs is a set that finds room for Chopin and Tchaikovsky, as well as Nick Drake, Stevie Wonder, Turkish folk music and Vocalese-style versions of hoe-down songs.

I challenge any vocalist not to balk at the sheer discipline displayed by groups such as the Swingles; not to be awed by their highly developed sense of timing, aware that keeping tempo is tough enough even with musical accompaniment let alone without. Ranging from operatically trained singers to pop vocalists, each member of the chorale is a very competent soloist to boot. There’s no room for dead weight here.

Plus they are all obviously having such a good time; how they strike the right balance is a wonder. I can only imagine the amount of hours they spend rehearsing. A music lover could have only one of two reactions in the midst of such excellence; either throw their hands up in surrender, acknowledging anything less is mere child’s play or be buoyed to work bloody hard in the hope of becoming nearly as good. Indifference is not really an option.

Some might be familiar with the Swingles from their contribution to the soundtrack of an erstwhile favourite show of mine, ‘Glee’. On Saturday they performed high-octane, niftily choreographed versions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ and Quincy Jones’ ‘Soul Bossa Nova’ which both featured in the first episode of the highly popular TV musical.

The Swingles were joined on the night by British Jazz veteran Norma Winstone, Belgian beatbox phenomenon Roxorloops and Tfive: the T-Mobile choir, who found their way into the nation’s heart accosting passengers at Heathrow airport with their sweet acappella offerings.

Other standout moments included a laidback, doo-wop-cum-beatbox interpretation of the Beatles ‘Lady Madonna’ (featuring Roxorloops) and a very mellow ‘Ticket to Ride’ that wipes the floor with the original. In fact the Swingles have a habit of doing more for a tune than the artist who made it famous. Their take on Bjork’s ‘Unravel’ is a prime example. Whilst I wouldn’t contest the Icelandic songstress’ ability to craft a good song, her voice-which sounds like it’s obstructed by a cleft-palate or some other speech impediment – is a taste I’ve never properly acquired. The beauty of ‘Unravel’ is better served by the Swingles’ extremely polished yet sensitively executed arrangement.

I dare say the musically inclined and tone deaf alike won’t be able to resist the urge to just wanna sss-iiii-nnnnn-gggg after a night with the Swingles. The group received a prolonged standing ovation and rightfully so. They are simply bravissima. How I wish I were a Swingle.

The Swingles photographed by Ben Ealovega.