Arts Listings

Arts: A Cappella Contest A Treat for the Ears By STEVEN FINACOM Special to the Planet

Friday January 27, 2006

Ah, a cappella.  

Concerts today are often so elaborately staged and embellished with everything from pyrotechnics to video backdrops, huge sound systems, background choruses, and full orchestras, that it’s can be a relief to periodically hear good singers perform with no amplification, no instrumental accompaniment, no lip synching—nothing but their natural voices.  

One need look no further than the University of California campus for that sort of musical entertainment.  

Cal boasts several excellent a cappella student groups, most of them student-run and loosely affiliated as part of the UC Choral Ensembles. 

Spring brings a variety of public concerts by these groups, individually and in combination. 

A cappella (“from the chapel”) music was originally sung in small religious precincts where instrumental accompaniment from organs or orchestral groups wasn’t available. It also developed a sturdy secular tradition. 

Collegiate a cappella has a long history on the East Coast, especially in the Ivy League, but there’s a venerable and thriving spirit and array of a cappella groups at West Coast universities as well. 

A good opportunity to hear some of them sing comes this Saturday, Jan. 28, when a regional quarterfinal of the National Championship of College A Cappella takes place at Wheeler Auditorium on the campus. The concert is at 8 p.m. and tickets are $10 at the door. 

Two Cal student groups—the co-ed Decadence, and the Men’s Octet—are on the competition program, along with the Troy Tones from USC and the cleverly named Fermata Nowhere (men) and Nothing But Treble (women) groups from Mount San Antonio College. 

Founded 58 years ago, the Men’s Octet fittingly won the National Championship in its 50th anniversary year. One of the best performances I’ve ever seen on any stage was the Octet in that championship season singing not only traditional favorites but also Madonna and a pitch-perfect send-up of “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. 

The membership has changed over entirely now, but the new Octet still sings with vigor and enthusiasm.  

A fine complement to the all male group is the nine-woman California Golden Overtones, with a rich singing tradition of their own. Unfortunately they’re not performing in the Berkeley quarterfinal concert on Saturday—they’ve been seeded in another competition in the Pacific Northwest—but there are later opportunities to hear them sing. 

A cappella concerts at Cal are inexpensive, fun, and good entertainment. If you’re older than, say 25, you may initially feel a little out of place since college friends and classmates of the singers tend to dominate the audience.  

But the music—ranging from Cal spirit songs to “Golden Oldies” to contemporary pop and rock—is engaging, the students are fine singers and entertaining performers, and you should enjoy yourself at least as much as if you’d spent five or ten times more for a “professional” concert. 

If you can’t attend the competition concert this weekend, there are other opportunities this spring, although they aren’t well publicized off campus.  

Check the website of the UC Choral Ensembles,, particularly the Spring 2006 Calendar section.  

The Octet has its Spring Show on March 3 and 4. The Overtones follow with theirs on April 7 and 8th. There’s an “A Cappella Against AIDS” concert on Feb. 24, and something called the “Octet UnButtoned” on April 28.  

Events run through early May, and include an intriguing listing for the Perfect Fifth Spring Concert on April 29, staged in the soaring lobby of the Hearst Memorial Mining Building. And all the Choral groups get together for a cumulative Spring Show on May 5 and 6. 

The scheduled concerts aren’t the only public performances by any means. During the school year several groups perform weekly for free at Sather Gate. If you happen to be on the Berkeley campus at 1 p.m. you can hear the Octet sing on Wednesdays, the Overtones on Fridays, and Noteworthy on Mondays.  


Photograph by Steven Finacom 

The UC Men’s Octet, performing here at Sather Gate, will compete this Saturday evening in the  

National College A Cappella Championship quarterfinals on campus.m