BinG! Barbershop Musikfestival 2018

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BinGBMF18It must be nearly a year ago that I played a new arrangement through to Jonathan before sending it off the chorus who had commissioned it, and he said, ‘Oh it would be nice to hear it sung’. And thus our vague intention to go to a Barbershop in Germany convention one day crystallised into the plan to make 2018 the year.

Jonathan was right, by the way. The Harmunichs’ performance of my medley of Queen’s ‘Play the Game’ and ‘Killer Queen’ was a total delight to behold. The standing ovation they received suggested that I was not the only person to think this, as did the aggregate score of 86.3% which won them the chorus championship decisively.

The headline news from BinG!’s Musikfestival this year – apart from the Harmunich’s record-breaking score – was the inaugural World Mixed Barbershop Chorus contest, held on Saturday in combination with the German national contest, in the same way as the World Mixed Quartet contest has been held alongside the national event for the past few years. Choruses from Canada, Australia, the UK and Ireland joined the two German mixed choruses who were competing in both events.

I have remarked before on the way that the mixed-sex German barbershop organisation has facilitated interchange of skills between the men’s and women’s forms of the genre via mixed groups, and with this contest they are continuing to use their depth of experience to nurture the fledgeling mixed chorus scene as they have already nurtured the mixed quartets.

This depth of experience is particularly evident in Heavy Medal, their chorus of quartet medallists, who were guests on the shows rather than competitors. Munich Show Chorus, who won the contest, shared some of the same musical qualities that we can all learn from.

First, there’s a continuity of vocal production between male and female singers that is clearly a legacy of the years of interchange. You sometimes hear people objecting to mixed barbershop on the grounds that the different vocal timbres won’t match, and if you are combining singers from such separate and distinct forms of the genre as Sweet Adelines and the Barbershop Harmony Society, that may be a valid point. The Germans show us though that this isn’t an inherent feature of gendered voices, and if you sing together as a matter of course you can get a wonderful blend. (This shouldn’t be a surprise. I believe male and female singers cooperate in all kinds of other choral genres…)

Second, there are choices about repertoire and key that allow all the voices to play to their strengths. When you sing mixed barbershop in the men’s key or only a little higher, you push the female voices into the bottom of their range, with both sonic and expressive consequences. You lose a lot of brightness that higher voices can bring to the sound, which affects the whole texture, not just the parts on which the women are singing. And if the tune never gets above the middle of the voices presenting it, you lose the sense of urgency that higher tessitura should bring to a rising melodic shape.

Interestingly, this was a criticism I think I might have had of Heavy Medal when I first heard them a few years ago, but this weekend I thought they were making choices that used the wonderful voices at their disposal very effectively.

Treating the voices more kindly not only helped these choruses sound better, but it gave them the opportunity to start exploiting the wider range of colours available to a mixed chorus. Given the nature of the barbershop texture, the need to combine male and female voices in the middle of the texture can in some cases reduce the timbral palette in order to find the necessary common vocal ground. Both Heavy Medal and the Munich Show Chorus have managed to transcend this challenge and are developing their available sound worlds in very interesting ways.

Hearing how well developed the world mixed quartet scene has become in the few years since BinG! started hosting that championship, I have high hopes for the developments this new contest will encourage. And I can confirm that the reputation BinG! conventions have as wonderful events to attend is well-deserved.

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