Tuesday, 2 June 2015

A Weekend in the Heart of the British Barbershop World

As I sat looking out over the bay in Llandudno, late on Sunday afternoon in the last weekend of May, I was struck by
Venue Cymru, overlooking the bay at Llandudno
with the grand Venue Cymru on the right.
the darkening grey skies, threatening rain as they had done for most of that day. What was most striking of all, though, was my mood. Influenced as we Brits are by the state of the weather, it occurred to me that I was, at this particular moment, quite the contrarian. No kind of weather could have dampened my spirits that weekend.

The location was the Venue Cymru, the venue, this year, for the British Association of Barbershop Singers National Convention in 2015, a meeting of all the greatest musical minds, voices and hearts that this nation's barbershop community can muster ... and a good deal of talent from a few other musical communities for good measure. To be singing in this kind of company may be fine enough, but to be singing with the Chorus, Hallmark of Harmony, who were and, it could be argued, still are the best in the UK, is something else altogether! 

We arrived on the first day of a four day fest, to perform as current gold medal champions in the Friday night show in the theatre that seats 1,500 or more and it was to a capacity
The Theatre at the Venue Cymru
audience. Our opener was a new arrangement, by our resident genius, Sam Hubbard, of an intro appropriately called "Overture", a song with a touch of show business parody, set the pace. Next, two songs, new to Hallmark, were that Marvin Gaye classic, "I Heard it Through The Grapevine" - voted recently the best ever Motown song - and the towering not to mention drama filled, David Wright arrangement of "The Impossible Dream". We finished with the competition set, which we will take to the International Convention in Pittsburgh at the end of June: the Rogers and Hart, Adam Reimnitz arrangement of the 
beautiful ballad, "My Romance" and our up-tune, that Hammerstein, Harbach and Kern song, to an arrangement written specially for Hallmark by the remarkable Liz Garnett, "I Won't Dance". 

The Arena at the Venue Cymru
As if that wasn't enough, we were treated the following day, to some magnificent singing in the Chorus competition, aimed at finding out who, out of thirty-six entrants (fewer than the forty-eight that competed last year), would  be the pretenders to Hallmark of Harmony's crown. Because current champions are not allowed to compete the year following their triumph, we did, however, perform a shorter set starting with Grapevine, at the end of the chorus competition in the Arena that evening. They call it the 'mic cooling' session. We had also asked the bank of twelve - yes, TWELVE - judges to score us privately, to check where we are, so to speak. For reasons of propriety and etiquette, I cannot tell you what that score was, nor where it would have placed us, had we been competing this year, but suffice to say we were very, VERY pleased with the result ... the winners of the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals were Bristol's very impressive Great Western Chorus, Bolton's Cottontown Chorus, who have been great supporters of our efforts this year, and Nottingham's Grand Central Chorus, whose up-tune was an ambitious and, in my view, a magnificent take on The Wizard of Oz. They were all very worthy medalists.

Some of the boys of Hallmark after their
Mic Cooler, waiting for the results ...
As a footnote to the chorus competition, and the winners in particular, we had noted the flattery in Great Western's up-tune, which was a parody of barbershop singing. In the concluding passages of this performance, there was a very deliberate and obvious imitation of some of the moves in Hallmark's own performances, which were considered to be innovative and ground breaking in the barbershop world. So in the hour's warm up before our own performance as mic coolers, we slotted in a small and subtle change to one of our own moves in "I Won't Dance" as a return compliment. It was noted, with a few whoops of appreciation! 

On Sunday morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed, we were scheduled to have a coaching session with the music team of the best chorus in the world, current international Gold medalists from Texas, Vocal Majority (apparently there's a long waiting list of budding singers wanting to join them, not surprisingly it turns out). However, far from being a quiet coaching session, it turned out to be a Masterclass held under glass in the Hall at the Venue Cymru, to a capacity audience, standing room only. And what a session it was! So much of value came out of this, not least a little moment towards the end of the hour-long masterclass. Following a suggestion from VM's Musical Director about how we might sing a part of the tag (the closing dramatic section, aka the coda) in "I Won't Dance", the way in which we responded to this suggestion brought a spontaneous whooping and applause from the (albeit very knowledgeable barbershop) audience before we'd even finished the song! Lump in throat moment.

If it were possible to cap this, going to see the Vocal Majority perform their own show in the Theatre, on Sunday afternoon did this. At one minute, hugely entertaining, the next stirring, watery eyed moments. Shear class. This is what we are aiming for!

And later that afternoon, the final of the quartet competition. Four of the six finalists had Hallmark members singing with them. And the Gold medalists, who seemed to be genuinely far more surprised at the result than most of the audience, our very own Tagline, comprised entirely of Hallmark members, present or recently past ... and maybe just about to rejoin us. Very well done to them and to our own bass section coach, Rob Foot, who is the anchor of that winning quartet.

In conclusion: I ask myself how much have I learned about singing in the past few months since joining Hallmark of Harmony? The answer is: "loads!".  And how much more have I got to learn? ... Loads!!  

Only one musical instrument made an appearance throughout the weekend, perhaps the cheapest and most amazing instrument that ever existed, the human voice. A perfect contribution and conclusion to the musical experiences that contributed to my mood last weekend ... and not a metaphorical cloud in sight.

We'll be back for this next year!