Thursday January 31, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Once upon a time, there was a little town in Vermont that didn’t have a college a cappella concert.

A few people had heard of a cappella and some had even sung it, but most of the townsfolk went about their business without any thought of it.

How times have changed.

Ten years ago, Producer Dede Cummings and a merry band of volunteers staged the first Collegiate A Cappella Concert at the Latchis Theatre.

Since then it has become an institution. It has sold out every single year -- it may be a tougher ticket than the Super Bowl or Red Sox-Yankees at Fenway. It has raised roughly $100,000 for the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. It has spun off a Friday night High School A Cappella show which packs the museum the night before and raises $3,000 and more for the In-Sight Photography Project.

And it has fanned the flames of singing in the community, particularly among young people. There are now five student-run high school a cappella groups in Brattleboro and a growing list of youth who want to go to college, join an a cappella group and bring that group back to Brattleboro.

Tickets are still available, but going fast, for this Saturday’s special 10th annual Collegiate A Cappella Concert, which starts at 7:30 p.m.. at the Latchis Theatre. For tickets, visit ww.brattleborotix.com.


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Funny to think that the idea for the first show was greeted with, shall we say, healthy skepticism.

The roots of the behemoth that is the Collegiate A Cappella Show actually can be traced to the year before the first show. In 2003, BUHS grad John Wesley brought his group, Quasimodal of Wesleyan University, to the old New England Youth Theatre in the former Chinese restaurant site in the Latchis complex on Main Street.

"My sister Carolyn was definitely the one who suggested it," said John Wesley, now living in Syracuse, N.Y., and pursuing a career in law having recently passed the bar in New York.

That first show went well and captured the attention of some, including Cummings, whose son Sam Carmichael would go off to Brown the next fall and join a group called the Jabberwocks -- funny group names are part of a cappella world.

At the time, Cummings served on the board of the Brattleboro Museum, which was going through a rough financial patch. With enthusiastic urging from Carolyn Wesley, Cummings suggested a fundraising a cappella show with the local kids bringing their groups to town. Kevin Ryan, who had music industry experience and a son, Sean, in the Tufts Amalgamates, came on board to help the first show come to life.

Cummings booked the Latchis and the groups -- then came the doubts.

"Everyone thought I was crazy. People thought I was stupid," said Cummings.

"It was a leap of faith," admitted Konstantin von Krusenstiern, Brattleboro Museum director at the time. "It wasn’t one of those ideas that, for me, I immediately thought ‘this was brilliant.’ ... I remember wondering ‘Who’s going to come to this thing?’"

For a while, the answering seemed to be, not very many people.

A week before the first show, only a couple of dozen tickets had been sold, Cummings recalls. She remembers driving up to Mount Snow and all over the area to plaster posters wherever she could.

Slowly but surely tickets sales rose, but there were still seats available on the night of the show, March 6, 2004.

For Krusenstiern, the first inkling that this was going to be a great event came during sound check prior to the first show. Hours before people began filling the house, he heard the groups sing and remembers feeling chills of excitement.

Then came concert time, and the crowds came. So many people showed up to buy tickets at the door that crowds snaked out of the Latchis lobby and around the corner onto Flat Street.

"That very first year was insane. We were just dancing in the aisles. ... It was a cool feeling to have it deliver," said Cummings.

"It was just so much fun the first year. It still is fun," said Krusenstiern. "To me there’s nothing better than a full house at the Latchis."

A full house and then some. About 80 people were turned away that first year, but even they salvaged some joy when the Amalgamates came outside to serenade them on the street. Everyone else squeezed into the Latchis to hear Quasimodal, The Jabberwocks, The Amalgamates, local teen group Big Sky, the BUHS Madrigals, a Marlboro College group called The Five O’Clock Belles and the high school all-male group Shoulder Narrows.

For the singers, seeing the Lathis packed with people enthusiastically digging a cappella was something they’ll never forget.

"Looking out at the crowd that first night ... it was a remarkable thing," said Sean Ryan, who has particularly fond memories of having his group introduced by his father and then hearing Jack Wesley, John’s father and a close friend, yell a proud "That’s my boy" when he came on stage. "It was all I could hope for and more."

Like Cummings, Ryan credits John Wesley, Quasimodal and that first concert in NEYT for starting the whole thing. A latecomer to singing at BUHS, Ryan said Wesley and Quasimodal "absolutely pushed me that direction" when he got to college.

He tried out for the Amalgamates when he got to Tufts, choosing them because they were co-ed he "liked the idea of singing with women." He jumped at the chance to bring the ‘Mates to Brattleboro for the first Latchis concert.

"It was amazing. I loved the idea of coming home ... who doesn’t like a homecoming?" he said.

The importance of having hometown singers continues to this day. This year’s concert features seven groups that either have a local singer, another local connection or were there for the first a cappella show.

The first event paid off for the museum. It initially raised about $6,000 and that number has since grown to $15,000, about 4 percent of the museum’s current operating budget.

It paid off in other, unexpected ways. For Krusenstiern, it reinforced his passions for introducing the museum to new people, collaborating in new ways with new partners and strengthening the museum brand.

It also established that the college a cappella show was not going to be one-and-done. People clamored right away for a repeat performance, and plans came together for a second show, on March 5, 2005, starring the three founding college groups, plus the V-8s of Mount Holyoke College -- and local singer Lauren Breunig -- and a BUHS Super Group and the Leland & Gray A Cappella group.

Among the highlights of that show was the Jabberwoks’ rendition of of "The Gulf War Song" by Moxy Fruvous. Presented at the time of the war in Iraq, it gave the show a bite of relevance and established that these young people have something to say in addition to something to sing.

From then on, an annual show was a foregone conclusion. In 2006, the concert featured the last appearance -- until this year -- by Quasimodal, as well as the ‘Mates, the Jabberwocks and the V-8s and newcomers the Smiffenpoofs and the Vibes, both of Smith College, and featuring local singers Louisa Sullivan and Aislinn Smith. The High School A Cappella Warm-Up show the night before was born in 2006 and packed the Hooker-Dunham lobby. In 2007, professional a cappella-ers, the Groove Barbers, featuring former members of Rockapella, graced the stage, along with the Jabberwocks, the ‘Mates, the Smiffenpoofs and the Vibes and newcomers the Boston College Heightsman (local singer Andrew Jenzer) and Hoftra Sigma’cappella (Brittany Pollard).

The next year, brought the arrival of three groups -- Voicestream of Ithaca College (Nick Bombicino), the Cats Meow of the University of Vermont (Sarah Seekins) and ... the Tufts Beelzebubs, a group in the highest echelon of college a cappella. They featured local singer Penn Rosen, but there was also another local connection.

In what is either coincidence or kismet, Danny Lichtenfeld succeeded Krusenstiern at the helm of the museum. In college, Lichtenfeld was a member and director of the Beelzebubs at a time when the group -- and college a cappella itself -- was taking its game to new and powerfully creative heights.

He was there, and now he was at the helm of the museum, beneficiary of the event, which would now be welcome his old group, with a local singer.

"I just feel very lucky that Dede started this thing, and that I inherited it," said Lichtenfeld. "The fact that there’s this tradition of this concert in Brattleboro really brings home for me the way in which this genre has become so much bigger than it was when I was singing."

How big?

How about as big as it gets? In December 2009, the Beelzebubs wowed national TV audiences on NBC’s a cappella reality show, "The Sing-Off." Brattleboro audiences stayed glued to their sets as the Bubs survived round after round of elimination. They felt considerable pride when hometown hero Penn Rosen earned raucous applause and the chance to give Nicole Scherzinger a kiss with his solo of "Sweet Caroline. The Bubs finished second overall, first in our hearts, and two months later were in Brattleboro.

Tickets for that Feb. 5, 2010 a cappella show sold out before Christmas in 2009.

The Bubs leveraged their success with a chance to provide the vocals for the Dalton Warblers on "Glee," the next year, as Rosen directed the group.

The next year, the Dartmouth Aires, which had already made their debut at the Brattleboro a cappella show the year before, also finished as runner up on "The Sing Off." Furthermore, Devon Barley of the University of Vermont Top Cats sang on NBC’s TV show "The Voice," reaching the round of 16.

Lichtenfeld, the ‘Bubs and a cappella in general were featured in Mickey Rapkin’s book "Pitch Perfect," recently made into a feature film.

Yep, a cappella is experiencing a big wave of popularity -- and the Brattleboro show has been riding it ... has been or part of it.

"It wasn’t by design, but it seems like the timing of this event ... just seemed so perfect, with the upsurge in a cappella," Krusenstiern said.

Indeed, good timing and serendipity have been the allies of the Brattleboro a cappella show from the get-go.

It helps, for instance, that the show comes when it does when we’re all in the deep throes of winter. The first five years, the show came on the first weekend in March; since 2009, it’s come on the first weekend in February. Can’t we all use a shot of sunny, youthful energy right about now?

But maybe it’s better not to overthink this stuff. Maybe there’s an easier explanation for the event’s popularity.

"It’s like one of the finest moments of my life ... to be in the theater and hear a group nail it," Cummings said.

"It’s fun, and it’s for a good cause," added Wesley. "It’s a lot of fun. I think when you come down to it, the groups don’t take themselves too seriously."

Though they’ve been out of college several years now, Wesley and Ryan often flash back to their days in college a cappella.

"I think of it as really being absolutely formative," said Ryan, who has some advice for present-day and future a cappella singers. "Just enjoy the heck out of it while it’s there. It’s a unique time in our life. Man oh man, that was a blast, but I couldn’t do it again."

Which brings us to another special aspect of this year’s 10th anniversary show.

It will be Dede Cummings’ last as producer. Though she will stay involved in some fashion. Health reasons and just a general sense that the time is right have prompted her decision.

"It has a life of its own," said Cummings. "That’s I feel like I could leave it in good hands."

Cummings praised the efforts of her tireless team of volunteers, singling out stalwarts such as Kevin Ryan, Carolyn Wesley, lighting man Howard Ires and his son, Jake, Victoria Jaenson, Krusenstein, Lichtenfeld, the sponsors and so many others.

Among her favorite memories are hearing her son’s arrangement of "Blackbird" sung by the Jabberwoks; the Smiffenpoofs singing Imogen Heap’s "Hide and Seek"; UVM’s Cats Meow pulling off a beautiful arrangement of the Joni Mithcell tune "A Case of You"; John Weskey singing Bruce Springsteen’s "Philadelphia"; hearing the Bubs and the Dartmouth Aires singing soon after their appearances on "The Sing Off"; being backstage with the groups before the show when things are so energetic and intense; and most of all, the friendships along the way, especially with the singers, many of whom are still in regular touch with her.

"It’s really exciting that it’s the 10th year. It’s a real testament to Dede’s hard work and a lot of people’s hard work," said Sean Ryan. "I can’t believe I have memories that are a decade old. The fact that it happened a decade ago is amazing to me."