Last night at Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts (O1C) presented a performance by Continuum. This is one of the groups that is part of the Pacific Boychoir Academy, twelve high schoolers singing a cappella. Friday night’s repertoire reached as far back as a motet by Josquin des Prez (“Tu solus qui facis mirabilia”) all the way up to a pop selection by Linkin Park.
A cappella singing is a double-edged sword. Every vocalist must maintain a solid sense of pitch, but individual pitch is not enough. All the voices must blend with impeccable fidelity to the rich number of intervals that may have to sound simultaneously. Where counterpoint is concerned, the focus tends to be on each individual line having its own character without ever compromising the point-against-point intervals. However, the Continuum repertoire is, for the most part, homophonic, which means that all voices must blend into an integrated sonority, which is uniquely colored on the basis of intervallic content.
There was no faulting the skillfully blended sonorities that Continuum brought to the program they presented last night. This is a group in which every member knew how to listen to every other member, resulting in a confident flow of harmonic progressions that made the group sound as if it were a single instrument. Such an attentive approach to performance served them, for the most part, consistently well, regardless of the century of the music being presented.
Had they focused on the historical breadth of composed choral music and arrangements of traditional tunes, this would have been a compelling evening rising to the level of professional ensembles. However, there were a few departures from those foundations that did not fare as well. Three of the members of the group sang solos with piano accompaniment from the art song repertoire. None of them had the vocal qualities that distinguish solo from choral singing; and, even with piano support, all of them lacked the security of pitch that made the choral offerings so outstanding. For that matter, the pianist himself was not particularly supportive, often more concerned with getting his own notes right than with working with the vocalist.
The other down-side to the evening came with the pop selections to wrap up the program. Most of these were arrangements by Deke Sharon, who may have understood the charts but exhibited little knowledge of the original performances. The fact is that, 50 years ago, there were groups like the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, and Nash that made a financial killing out of homophony. Whatever the words were, these were groups that knew how to blend three or more voices; and each group had its own distinctive sound, which often had more emotional impact that the texts of the songs.
Sharon’s arrangements blithely turned all of that stylistic diversity into a single mass of featureless mush. His work recalled all of those truly dreadful efforts to arrange music from Broadway, movies, and television for the Boston Pops, back when that band was led by Arthur Fiedler. The stuff clearly had an audience (as long as we remember that the audience at orchestra level was seated at tables enjoying steins of beer); but it was decidedly not an audience of listeners. Fiedler is now part of a distant past, and O1C audiences deserve better than to be reminded of his traditions.