Sweet Adelines at Gateshead

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The Sage CentreThe Sage CentreLast weekend saw the Sweet Adelines Region 31 convention come to Gateshead. The Sage Centre is a great venue for this kind of event, with auditoriums designed to make live music sound wonderful, and plenty of common social spaces for people to hang out together between the performances. It’s a pity, from a convention experience perspective, that the Quartet of Nations region won’t be able to come back here in future, though I’m sure everybody is delighted about the significant increase in membership that means they’re growing out of the venue.

Indeed, Region 31’s was the biggest Sweet Adelines convention anywhere in the world this Spring. This is partly due to the amalgamation of a few choruses from Holland where the region had become too small to be separately viable, but also reflects organic growth. Several choruses were competing for the first time (such as Viva A Cappella, Cheshire A Cappella and London City Singes), and others such as DaleDiva were only at their second outing. Whilst barbershop in its home country seems to be fighting something of a rearguard action to retain members, the UK brand seems to be booming. When I finished my book on British barbershop at the end of the summer of 2003, the total number of barbershoppers in the UK was about 4,500. Now it is over 6,000.

The big story for the quartet contest was the head-to-head between Eu4ia and Finesse, two well-established and well-loved quartets, both of whom have LABBS and European championships under their belts. Finesse took the top spot, and – both graciously and realistically – acknowledged in their show appearance that competing against Eu4ia had made them better.

I had a personal interest in this contest, as Eu4ia’s up-tempo tune, Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me, was one they had commissioned from me last autumn, and was receiving its contest premiere. Friends are checking the stats, but we think it is probably the first British arrangement to medal in a Sweet Adelines contest, and almost certainly the first to do so at its first outing. (If anyone knows of previous ones, do get in touch – I need to know in whose footsteps I am following!)

In the chorus contest, Lace City Chorus from Nottingham secured a place to represent the region in Houston in autumn 2011. They have several experiences at International from recent years, and will be keen to build on their and Surrey Harmony’s achievements in 2009. As the show compère, Kathy Carmody remarked, there was a time when American Sweet Adelines thought it was cute that people in the UK wanted to join in their hobby, but it’s not looking so cute any more.

In my book, I quoted Tom Gentry talking about what he used to perceive as a conservative streak in British barbershop in terms of British colonial administrators out in foreign parts. Far from home, they had to work harder to maintain the integrity of the traditions they cherished. There’s a similar colonial metaphor available to articulate the sense of threat mainland barbershop experiences as their colonial outposts move from being derivative appendages to making significant bids to be taken seriously.

Kathy’s comment was made in jest (and with better comic timing than my transcription shows), but its humour derives from a recognisable truth. Victorian Britain thought their game had died when Australia first beat England at test cricket, and we are hearing reports of analogous anxiety at the prospect that the Swedish Ringmasters quartet, currently seeded 3rd, might take the BHS International trophy off North American soil for the first time. (Let us note, the term ‘International’ originally meant USA and Canada.) I am sure that last year’s Region 31 champs Forth Valley Chorus and Finesse will be keen to instil a similar sense of disquiet into North American Sweet Adelines in Seattle this October.

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