Sweet Adelines in Birmingham

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Symphony Hall's central thoroughfare, thronged with chorus singersSymphony Hall's central thoroughfare, thronged with chorus singersThe weekend saw Sweet Adelines Region 31 come to Birmingham for their annual convention. Symphony Hall is an expensive venue for this kind of event, but it does provide a wonderful environment. It’s not just that the auditorium is designed so well for acoustic performance (the judges remarked they’d never been at a contest venue of this size before without people needing amplification), but the social areas are so nicely integrated into the city. Of course I could be biased about my home patch, but I’d like to think I’m grateful for good venues wherever they can be found!

Both quartet and chorus contests were of an impressive quality. Both had clear winners out in front of the pack (Finesse and Forth Valley Chorus respectively), but 2nd-5th places were hotly contested in both competitions, giving a real excitement to the results. And in the lower-placed ensembles, all the performances were of creditable quality – all managed to make entertaining contributions to the weekend.

There are two elements to how good a performer is: how brilliant they are at their best, and how adequate they are on their bad days. You could say the same of an association, too – the success of the top attainers is an important performance-indicator, but the achievements of the also-rans arguably tells you more about the overall health of the organisation.

Visual/vocal coherence is part of the barbershop aesthetic that is usually discussed in terms of musical content: does the visual performance give a vision of the song that matches the vocal interpretation? But during the chorus contest I found myself thinking about another dimension of this– the relationship between costuming choices and chorus sound.

It was the contrast between 1st and 2nd place choruses that first had me thinking about this. Forth Valley Chorus produce a real ‘wall of sound’ effect: a bright, ringy, glittering sound that pours off the stage. And their stagewear was a sea of sequins, wall-to-wall pink shimmering in the light. Phoenix’s sound is less overwhelming, but more sculpted; the emotional impact comes less from the sheer physicality of the sound and more from nuance and inflection. And their stagewear, while blingy by everyday standards, is less overpoweringly so. You get a clearer impression of individual faces with Phoenix’s costuming, and the three-dimensional effects in their choreography are more visibly apparent.

Now, I’m not positing any kind of causal effect here. I don’t think that adding sequins will add ring to the sound. (Except, perhaps, in the subliminal messages a chorus gives itself in its presentational choices.) But there does seem to be evidence of a chorus’s particular sensibility emerging in more than one domain at once. It could be that if Forth Valley decide their next growth goal is to extend the expressive range of their amazing sound, they might, over time, find the uniformity of the pink sequins no longer reflects their sense of identity quite so well.

This is just speculation of course. I actually have no idea what they may be planning either for artistic growth or future costuming. But it was just an interesting correlation I noticed that seemed to generalise to an extent beyond these two choruses. So I’m offering it as something to think about – as yet I’m not sure if it is merely a thing of passing note or whether it’s an idea that will turn out to be useful.

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