Pentatonix gave a wonderful, engaging performance last night at New York City’s historic Beacon Theatre. As a pianist, I found myself intrigued by their reharmonizations of familiar Christmas classics, and came away from the performance with an eagerness to try some of these chords out for myself at the keyboard. I also wanted to hear how the group sounded with their new member, bass vocalist Matt Sallee, who recently joined the a cappella quintet after the departure of Avi Kaplan.
The Beacon is a beautiful venue, with ornate decorations and excellent acoustics. The evening began with the opening act, the NYC-based Men Singing Carols, doing exactly that: they sang carols! In contrast to the Pentatonix, who prefer jazzy harmonies and complex rhythms, Men Singing Carols has embraced the classic sound of street corner doo-wop, joyously harmonizing with a vibe that one might have heard on Main Street USA during the 1950s. Last night’s audience, which seemed to consist mostly of singers, enjoyed their performance of Frosty The Snowman and other Christmas chestnuts.
After that informal performance, Pentatonix came out blazing. Spread out across a festively decked-out stage, they roared through 4 uptempo songs in a row, beginning with Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. While I liked each song separately, it was as if they were afraid they’d lose the audience if they changed the pace. (I was imagining some director urging them to “Keep it moving! Keep it moving!”) But they needn’t have worried. This audience would have enjoyed anything. They were into a cappella and knew the group’s repertoire by heart.
The concert began to settle down as the quintet literally settled down onto a large sofa at center stage to sing “Sleigh Ride.” Their arrangement successfully evoked the classic rendition we’ve known for decades while bringing their own style to it as well. The first half of the concert featured a few more songs including a vocal-percussion feature on Little Drummer Boy and a madrigal-flavored Carol Of The Bells. The group sounds great with their newest member and puts on a good show with lots of choreography and stage lighting.
After an intermission, the second set began with some non-Christmas songs the group has become associated with. They sang a medley of pop/rock songs, followed by their tour-de-force Evolution of Michael Jackson. One of the amazing things about Pentatonix is how effortlessly they interject quiet, peaceful moments into their uptempo arrangements. They’ll suddenly shift gears and put in the purest harmony imaginable, and then Bam!, the excitement kicks in again. MJ’s Heal The World was one of those places.
After a fun Happy Birthday, sung to about 6 audience members who were celebrating birthdays the group brought 2 “randomly selected” audience members to the stage to supposedly participate in their next song. But we soon discovered the real reason: the boyfriend got down on one knee, took out an engagement ring, and proposed to his girlfriend. She of course accepted and the crowd went wild!
The high point of the concert for me was their performance of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which not many groups could “pull off” live. In fact, vocalist Scott Hoying told us that the group had avoided the piece for 5 years because they didn’t want to “mess it up.” It sounded great, and they even did a little bit of the instrumental sections including the ascending guitar scales leading into the final ballad section.
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen started out very traditionally and went through some ensemble flourishes, while Mary, Did You Know? brought out the group’s passionate side. The set ended with a nice touch as the group distributed gift-wrapped presents to several audience members.
As an encore, the 5 vocalists set aside their individual mics and stood around a central microphone for their original song That’s Christmas To Me. The sound was warmer than anything we had heard so far and I wished that they had done this for a few more songs earlier in the show. While I realize they were aiming for a pop-concert sound and stage presence for the evening, I don't think they would sacrifice anything by doing this for 3-4 songs next time. ('Hi' to Pentatonix members who may be reading this: Audience sightlines permitting, you could do a mini set like this on a second stage or in an aisle, similar to the song you performed from the side of the Beacon Theatre. It would be very effective to sing 3-4 songs more intimately around the single mic like that. Similar to how groups like Imagine Dragons do a short "acoustic set" on a smaller stage out in the middle of the audience.)
The concert ended with an emotional rendition of Hallelujah, with the audience singing along. All in all, it was a very special evening of a cappella music. It also reminded me that the public will enjoy sophisticated, beautiful music in it's presented in an entertaining way. Go Pentatonix!