Arts & Culture

Vocal-only groups will perform a range of musical styles at Olympia a cappella fest

The Supertonics, the Seattle Men’s Chorus and Seattle Women’s Chorus’s new a cappella ensemble, is one of the groups competing in the Pacific Northwest Harmony Sweepstakes on Saturday in Olympia.
The Supertonics, the Seattle Men’s Chorus and Seattle Women’s Chorus’s new a cappella ensemble, is one of the groups competing in the Pacific Northwest Harmony Sweepstakes on Saturday in Olympia. Courtesy of the Supertonics

Though it dates back to at least the 15th century, when it was heard in Christian churches, a cappella is thoroughly modern music.

These days, vocal-only music seems to be everywhere you listen: in viral videos online, on reality-TV programs, and at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, home to Saturday’s Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival.

“I just love that this event features the unaccompanied, unaided human voice,” Masterworks artistic director Gary Witley told The Olympian. “Everything that is heard, no matter how amazing, is being created live by the people on stage.”

The lineup for the Northwest regional sweepstakes, sponsored by Masterworks Choral Ensemble, includes living evidence of just how cutting edge a cappella has become.

Among the competitors is the Supertonics, the first mixed-gender ensemble of the Seattle Men’s Chorus and Seattle Women’s Chorus, traditionally composed of gay and lesbian singers, respectively.

“Our singers can no longer be described as either ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian,’ ” artistic director Paul Caldwell told The Olympian. “We represent an amazing spectrum of orientation and gender identity. We wanted a new ensemble to reflect these young, fresh, exciting perspectives. We wanted a group that would be, by definition, cool and current. Contemporary a cappella music is future focused. And so are we.”

“It’s exciting and very raw hearing music made by people themselves without any instruments,” added Nikki Blackmer, who directs the 16-voice Supertonics, which received a standing ovation in its debut at the Seattle Men’s Chorus’s 2018 holiday concert.

While contemporary a cappella — in the mode of Pentatonix or last year’s Northwest sweepstakes winner, 20/20 — often includes beat boxing and other vocal instrumentation techniques, the sweepstakes features a wide array of musical styles.

Saturday’s lineup includes KlapaDooWopella, which does both doo-wop and traditional Croatian klapa, and the Restless Vocal Band, with a repertoire that spans roughly a century.

Also competing: The Baudboys, who won the Northwest regionals in both 2008 and 2011; Bodacious Ladyhood; Emerald City Voices; and Up to Something.

Regardless of style, a cappella is a testament to the singers’ talent, Witley said. “No technical tricks are enhancing the sound,” he added.

“When you strip away all of the other instruments, it leaves the singer quite vulnerable,” Blackmer wrote in a blog post for the Seattle Men’s and Women’s Choruses. “But in that moment, those singers find their greatest talents. … A cappella is probably the hardest type of harmony singing there is.”

Pacific Northwest Harmony Sweepstakes

  • What: Presented by Masterworks Choral Ensemble, this night of a cappella singing features seven groups competing to win the Northwest regionals of the national competition. Also performing is last year’s Northwest winner, 20/20.
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 9
  • Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
  • Tickets: $10-$26
  • More information: 360-753-8586, washingtoncenter.org, mce.org

More Masterworks

The Olympia choral ensemble has two more concerts in its 2018-2019 season, both happening at the Washington Center:

  • “Strength and Serendipity,” featuring John Leavitt’s contemporary “Missa Festiva” and Gabriel Faure’s classic, “Requiem,” at 7:30 p.m. April 13
  • “Torch Songs,” from sultry ballads to jazzy swing numbers, at 7:30 p.m. June 15
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