In 2011, I saw a commercial for a singing competition reality show that left me intrigued. Up until that point, I’d studiously avoided these types of shows; I could never really pinpoint why, but they left me feeling gross. This one, though, this was different. This was The Sing-Off, a show with 16 a capella groups competing, and I’d somehow completely missed the first two seasons. The interest of my (not-so) secret inner choir nerd was piqued. I watched every episode and from the beginning, Pentatonix was the one group that hooked me.
Pentatonix is comprised of Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, Mitch Grassi, Avi Kaplan, and Kevin Olusola. They’ve always done things that didn’t seem humanly possible with just five voices. For an example of this, watch their Daft Punk medley, which is currently at 193 million views. (Be sure to wear headphones to get the full impact of Kaplan’s bass and Olusola’s vocal percussion.)
A lot has changed for Pentatonix since winning The Sing-Off in 2011. They signed with RCA, headlined national and global tours, and released a total of six albums–one went double platinum. They are currently touring in support of their self-titled album, and it’s a tour of firsts for them, both in headlining in arenas and touring with an opening act for the first time.
Us the Duo was the perfect choice for the opening act. Michael and Carissa Alvarado are a husband and wife group that are most frequently described as folk rock. I can see that description being applicable, but it has the potential to be limiting. There were definite touches of pop and blues influences.
The chemistry that I’d imagine makes their marriage work was palpable. Carissa’s big, belting vocals were complemented beautifully by a sometimes sweet, sometimes gravelly tenor from Michael.
The musicianship was impressive and I lost count of all of the instrument switches the pair made throughout their set. At certain points Michael was on keys, guitar, and bass; Carissa played a single drum, bass, and the ever essential egg shaker.
Although I enjoyed their latest single “(Stop) Just Love,” the song that left the biggest impression on me was “No Matter Where You Are.” The song, a reworking of their wedding vows, is upbeat and soulful with a raw vibe at times. It seems to almost encapsulate who they are in just under four minutes.
Pentatonix’s performance was like living in the future with just a taste of the past. Generally, when people think of a capella performances they think of things like barbershop quartets or college groups like Straight No Chaser. Pentatonix certainly draws on these fundamentals, but they’ve elevated the art of a capella performance in a way that has allowed them to cross over into mainstream relevance. The thing that is so interesting is that you can hear very clearly the influences of five individuals, merged into a collective. They draw upon pop, hip hop, R&B, reggae, EDM, and classical roots to create something that is truly their own.
Very early in the set, I realized that we were actually witnessing a master class in vocal precision and performance. Performing a capella is hard; think about the last time you heard a group of people sing “Happy Birthday” to someone and what a hot mess it was. (It always is.) There’s no drummer or bassist to keep you in the groove and on tempo. You don’t have a guitar or piano to listen to for your starting note in an intro. It’s just your voice.
In a larger group, you may be able to get away with one person being slightly off, but this is just five people. There is no room for someone coming in early or hitting a sour note because everyone will hear it. By itself, performing a flawless hour long set is impressive. What floored me is when I realized that there were technical cues happening with lights and visual effects at certain points in the songs. Their timing had to be perfect, and it was.
Beyond their natural talent as singers, Pentatonix is thoughtful and deliberate in their arrangements. This isn’t an original realization on my part. They’ve won the Grammy for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Capella for the past two years in a row. What is really impressive (in case the two Grammys didn’t do it for you) is their ability to deliver on these arrangements live. They play to their strengths, and each member of the group had moments that highlighted their own particular set of skills.
Hoying’s riffs and runs are the stuff of legend. His voice has a soulfulness well beyond his mere 24 years. There were many shining examples of these skills during the set, but there was one that stood out to me. During their arrangement of Justin Bieber’s songs “Love Yourself” and “Where Are U Now,” there were sections in the latter song where Hoying was simply tearing it up with beautifully placed runs. The thing I loved most about this was how it demonstrated just the right amount of restraint. Hoying could have easily overpowered the ending as he’s got the chops for it. Instead of the vocal gymnastics so common in a lot of pop music, he gave just enough to give the arrangement a real sense of heart. I can confidently say that this was the first time I’ve ever enjoyed a Justin Bieber song, and these are words that I never thought I would type.
Olusola’s vocal percussion was subtle but integral. He adds such depth to each song; it’s like the perfect icing on a very delicious cake. His bass beats during “Water” added a weight to the song that brought it to a different level. His falsetto notes on “If I Ever Fall In Love” were gorgeous and such a wonderful surprise. My favorite moments with Olusola were in the approximately five minutes that Pentatonix actually had instrumental accompaniment. Olusola brought his electric cello out on stage and blew everyone away with Bach’s “Prelude No. 1.” Initially, Olusola simply played the piece–and played it beautifully. After the first minute of the piece, he began to beat box as well. Beyond blowing the audience away with what we were seeing, he was able to put a really modern twist on such a classic piece.
Maldonado, who recently recorded a medley with local Orlando group Voctave, is like Pentatonix’s very own Mighty Mouse. With a vocal range of four and a half octaves, (Mariah Carey has five octaves, for comparison purposes) Maldonado is a powerhouse. This was best demonstrated in “Water” where she took the lead and just owned it. She took center stage with her group mates on either side of the stage and delivered such a gorgeous performance that it left me with goosebumps. Her voice had such a sincere and pure quality to it that it was obvious she was emotionally connecting to the song, which allowed the audience to connect as well.
For me, the highlight of the set was a mash-up that showed Pentatonix’s particular streak of genius for arrangements. Additionally, it provided my favorite moments for both Kaplan and Grassi. The song began with Anton Bruckner’s third setting of “Christus Factus Est,” a classic sacred motet. The piece by itself is interesting because it’s known in choral settings for being very expressive due to the homophony Bruckner used in the beginning of the piece. (There’s that not-so-secret inner choir nerd coming out.)
Kaplan’s basso profundo was fantastic throughout the entire set, and Olusola’s vocal percussion provided the heartbeat and groove of the group. At the end of “Christus Factus Est,” Kaplan hit an A1 that not only left the crowd screaming, but segued perfectly into a cover of “Aha!” by Imogen Heap.
I am of the firm belief that Imogen Heap actually wrote this song for Grassi, though she may not have known that at the time. I love the original, but this was a spiritual experience. When he hit a high F5 at the end of the song, the arena exploded. (For a reference point, a high F5 is the same note that Celine Dion sings as the big finish in her song “Can’t Live.” You don’t have to admit it, but you know you know that song.) There are plenty of female vocalists that can’t hit that note and certainly can’t sing it with such a beautiful clarity of tone. Grassi was incandescent, and his interpretation was almost otherworldly.
The day after the show, my oldest son asked me if I had fun at the concert. I struggled to explain how all of the amazing moments of the night left me feeling both musically satiated, and yet also somehow empty knowing that the experience was over and was now a memory. He got quiet for a minute, and then with a very serious look on his face said, “I get it. It’s like everything felt special and now it’s all just normal again. Like when you catch a firefly in your hand, but you have to let it go?” I’ve tried, but there’s no way I can put it any better than that.
Penatonix Live Review by Danielle Jauz, edited by Matthew Weller.
Penatonix Concert Photos by Kaitlyn Frank.