Upon entering the Neville Scarfe building last Saturday, we were shocked to see singers decked out in bright colours, fun textures and donning elaborate accessories for extra flair. It’s important to note that in most classical music performances — which is what we’re most familiar with — concert black dress is always required.
This sense of personality is integral to the spirit of UBC A Cappella. In their annual preview concert last Saturday, they treated a packed lecture hall to a taste of what they’ve been working on this term.
There is a place in the club for new singers, experienced belters and everything in between. In fact, many members are amateur singers and study outside the music faculty. Co-presidents Jocelyn Chun and Kira Potter grew up doing music as an extracurricular activity, but studied psychology and biology respectively during their undergrads at UBC.
“I joined [UBC A Cappella] because I met a couple of people in the club, and it seemed super, super fun. I was singing casually my whole life and did a few choirs, but this is the first environment I was in where everyone was very focused on vocals,” said Chun.
“You don't need to know how to read music, or anything like that,” Potter chimed in. “I myself am not very good at reading music, I will own up to that right now. It's very, very inclusive.”
In a cappella, you have to be vulnerable. There is no track to conceal musical or lyrical imperfections, no instrumental percussion to keep the beat and no accompaniment.
In such a free-form ensemble, instruments are replaced with voice to create a dynamic choral sound. Masterful beat-boxing is layered with smooth honey-like choral chord progressions to make a uniquely modern sound that can only truly be felt in the same room.
And the seven teams that make up the club’s ensembles did just that.
The Unaccompanied Minors, directed by Jaya Hong, started off the event with mellow, vibey energy in “What Did You Mean (When You Said Love),” soloed by Emerson Gestrin. Compared to the original version of the song — simple, raw acoustic sounds with funk undertones — Kenneth Xing’s a cappella arrangement breathed new vitality into the piece.
The ensemble stirred up some gushy R&B magic with Silk Sonic’s “After Last Night,” which was arranged by Angela Park.
Still deep in the feels, Choral Reef took on Fifty Fifty’s “Cupid,” arranged by Sydney Kwan and Lydia Li.
“Hopefully you feel like hopeless romantics after this,” joked Choral Reef’s presenter.
Indeed, their number was bubbly and connected, like ocean waves. The group distinctly drew out the vocal ranges the ensemble was capable of, and it made for a groovy bebop spin on the song.
Fast and Forté was the largest ensemble of the seven, and is the only non-auditioned group. Over heavy beats and a sustained ambient hum at the song’s beginning, soloist Alyssa Chew led a sea of voices through Olivia Rodrigo’s “Vampire.”
As the song progressed to the chorus' peak of musical directors Justine Rigollet and Joshua Dar Santos’ arrangement, the group executed dynamics and ritardandos flawlessly. They were nimble and loud, finding power in numbers.
The Undeclared Majors directed by Chris Bangayan and Rachel Groening beautifully juxtaposed Fast and Forté’s lively performance with Bangayan’s angelic take on “What Was I Made For?” by Billie Eilish. They showcased their versatility by following that with poppy R&B in Bangayan’s next arrangement of Lake Street Drive’s “Hypotheticals,” guiding each other with a steady bop.
As avid boygenius listeners, one of our personal favourite performances was from Fermata, a group entirely made up of treble voices led by directors Giuliana Kim and Val Josephine. In a mashup of boygenius’ “Cool About It” and “Not Strong Enough,” they cleverly wove together lyrics and motifs from both songs to create a cohesive (and gut-wrenching) piece.
As they came together for a god-knows-how-many-part harmony on the phrase “I’ve been having revelations,” we had to agree — we were definitely having revelations as well.
For singers looking for higher levels of commitment and intensity, UBC A Cappella also offers two groups that compete in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella — Pitch Perfect-style.Though these were the smallest ensembles, each singer held their ground, with single voices jumping out for solo riffs that still reached the back of the room.
The Northwest Collective, led by musical directors Bryna McGarrigle and Cassandra Dubuc, had the most tangible sense of connection out of all the groups. Even without choreographed movement, they moved in perfect synchronicity. The singers kept careful eye contact with each other, which made for clean entrances and never a note out of place.
The group started with “The Exit” by Conan Gray, then moved on to “TRUSTFALL” by P!nk — despite choosing slower, more somber repertoire, they kept their audience locked in and engaged with clear dynamic rises and falls.
Eh? Cappella, the other competitive group, chose to go in an entirely different, yet equally exciting direction, with musical directors Anushka Mullick and Jathin Arjun leading the singers through two high-energy zingers.
Soloist Mahdin Salam snuck the audience a cheeky wink during Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” as the rest of the group grooved around him. For a moment, we were transported out of SCRF 100, and into a flash mob, which is not something you’d expect out of an a cappella performance.
They also sang Andee Fletcher’s reimagining of “Lights Up” by Harry Styles, which was one of the most notable arrangements of the concert.
Coming up with A Cappella and choral arrangements is not an easy task — writing interesting parts for so many people, especially when they don’t share your voice type or level of experience, takes time and patience. Most of the arrangements used in the UBC A Cappella ensembles, both competitive and recreational, are created by singers in the group.
This freedom to try new things is a testament to the supportive, uplifting environment that UBC A Cappella wants to encourage.
“[We] learned from the club and were able to build our confidence up to a point where we felt like we could lead other people,” said Chun. “I think that's the most important part — wanting to help other people learn and recognizing that you have room to grow.”
UBC A Cappella’s end of term concert is on December 9. Announcements and updates can be found on Instagram, @ubcacappella.