Sunday Night at the London Palladium

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Last Sunday, the best of British barbershop conspired to present a show at the London Palladium as the climax to the national ‘barbershop awareness week’. I had a couple of personal highpoints, with NoteOrious and Eu4ia both singing my arrangements – the latter having commissioned theirs specifically for this show (Christine Aguilera's 'Candyman').

It was a long show – a good three hours – but it did a very good job of sustaining interest. Given that all the acts were from basically the same kind of a cappella world, this is a testament to some very effective programming – it could have become very samey, but didn’t. I’ve been finding it useful to analyse what went in to making the structure so effective.

First, it’s worth thinking about the dimensions in which contrast was available:

  • Quartet/chorus/(other type of ensemble)
  • Male/female/(mixed voices)
  • Classic barbershop/other genres arranged for barbershop
  • Tempo and/or emotional world

As it happens, I seem to have listed these in the order they were applied to the programming structure from the top downwards. So, each half of the show was framed with a chorus to begin and end, with quartets in between, and the occasional octet slotted in the middle. Within that, there was a general alternation between male and female groups, with the two mixed ensembles placed midway in the first half and at the very end.

Within each set, each ensemble took us on their own particular musical journey with contrasts of genre and feel. I assume that the groups were generally responsible for their own programming, but that there was a degree of central control. If nothing else, you’d want to be sure they don’t all pick the same pieces, but it was also interesting to note that everyone did a mix of pure barbershop and other material. This seemed very appropriate to me: if the object of the event was to promote the genre, you want all the groups involved to show a commitment to its classic form, but if you’re performing in a venue famous for variety shows, it would be odd not to present some variety!

So, the structure was well planned, but I think there were three other factors that made significant contributions to keeping the show flowing. First, the balance of the two parts of the show: the first half was significantly longer than the second half. This mitigated against the tendency for attention to flag later on as I discussed in my recent post on rehearsal planning. Second, the length of the spots for each group was just long enough that you felt you’d got to know what they had to offer, but no longer. The principle of ‘always leave them wanting more’ really does work. Third (and possibly as a consequence of the short spots for each group), nearly everyone kept talking to a minimum. A little spoken introduction is nice to help performers connect with the audience, but there is usually an inverse relationship between the length of the spiel and its entertainment value.

So a fun night was had, and the organisers and performers alike are to be congratulated for crafting it into an entertaining whole. I was particularly grateful, as I’d bought tickets for some of my family and rather wanted them to have a good time. (I am trying to remember which Dorothy L. Sayers character claimed not to mind being bored her self, but didn’t want her guests to be bored – I had that same sense of responsibility.) But if nothing else, I think they found it interesting to be part of an audience where everyone seemed to know each other.

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