by MIKE CHAIKEN
In the modern era of pop music, harmony has ruled the roost.
When the boys went off to war in World War II, they listened to the Andrews Sisters. In the 1950s, street corners across the nation were filled with boys singing four-part harmonies. Later, in the early 1960s, the Beatles and the Beach Boys punched their superstar ticket with their ear-delighting harmonies. Where would the 1970s be without the Bee Gees? And so on.
And one of the most notable technology tricks (for better or worse) in the 21st century are devices that create an electronic harmony to accompany a vocalist who has left his/ her backup singers at home.
The electronic recreation of harmony endemic in the 21st century, however, has eliminated the attractive human element of two or more voices musically dancing around each other.
So groups like Pentatonix are a breath of fresh air— even as they mine a tried-and-true pop music approach.
And their invocation of a cappella in the year 2018— clearly has a fervent fan base, as evidenced by two nights of sold out performances at the Mohegan Sun Arena this past weekend.
I’ll skip over the dusty exclamation about how exciting it is that the members of Pentatonix perform without a band and how they still fill the auditorium with just their voices. After all, that’s what a cappella artists do and there are a number of musical conventions any group —even Pentatonix—will invoke to create that full sound.
Instead, let me praise how well the voices of Pentatonix members Kirstie Maldonado, Kevin Olusola, Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, and Matt Sallee mesh on their arrangements. And let me offer up great praise to those arrangements, which are full, musically interesting, and pleasing to the auditory palate.
During the performance at the Mohegan Sun on Dec. 9, baritone Hoying mentioned how he, mezzo-soprano Maldonado, and tenor Grassi have grown up performing together. And that intimate knowledge of each other’s voice is clearly evident.
Olusola, as the group’s human beat box, and Sallee, who sings bass, also were integral to the mix by offering up an inventive vocal rhythm underbedding that provided more than a simple four-on-the-floor bottom.
Pentatonix’s current tour, dubbed “The Christmas Is Here” tour, puts the focus on, obviously, Christmas music. However, what is appealing about Pentatonix is that their set didn’t reach for the low-hanging fruits of holiday music. Yes, they do pay homage to the stereotypical door-to-door carolers with “Joy to the World” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” But they also reached out for a tender version of Faith Hill’s “Where Are You, Christmas” and a sensitive rendering of “Mary, Do You Know.”
And sometimes, the group willingly veered a little bit off center from Christmas with a fun, “Sweater Weather” from their recent album, “Christmas Is Here,” and the moving and uplifting “Hallelujah,” originally performed by Leonard Cohen.
Another aspect that made Pentatonix a breath of fresh Christmas air is their sunny disposition on stage. They were chatty and personable. And they clearly loved every minute of performing before a sold out audience at the Mohegan Sun.
Although the show was a Christmas show, you didn’t have to invoke your inner Buddy from “Elf.” Even if you were a Scrooge, you still would have found yourself smiling over the sound of the voices of Pentatonix filling the room.
Pentatonix also needs to receive a thumb’s up for encouraging the next generation of a cappella by inviting the chorus from Woodstock Academy of Woodstock, Conn. to open the show.
I give Pentatonix 3 ½ stars out of 4.
PHOTOS by MIKE CHAIKEN