A Cappella Competition Sounds First Note for Collegiate Vocalists

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Will the winner of the inaugural Philadelphia Jewish Collegiate College A Cappella Competition be Jewkebox? Perhaps the Chaimonics? And don’t forget that old hometown favorite, the Shabbatones.

On Nov. 5, their performances will be among the highlights of the day at Congregation Beth Sholom in Elkins Park. Six Jewish a cappella teams from Temple, New York and Johns Hopkins universities, the University of Pennsylvania, and Muhlenberg and Queens colleges will compete for pride — not to mention cash prizes.

Gaston Bernstein and Cantor Jeffrey Weber | Photo by Jon Marks

It’s an idea that’s been percolating through the minds of producer and chair Gaston Bernstein, Beth Sholom Cantor Jeffrey Weber and congregation President Arthur Frankel.

“It came about because my daughter, Gabriela, sang a cappella in high school at Cheltenham with a group called Up the Octaves,” said Bernstein, whose wife, Sandy Bernstein, is cantor at Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall. “And my wife and I used to watch that show [The Sing-Off] where Pentatonix won.

“Then, out of the blue, about six months ago I was chatting with Art about us doing a cappella. He said he’d tried to do it last year but it didn’t work, and Cantor Weber said he’d been thinking of it, too.”

That started the wheels in motion for a genre of music that’s been made popular through shows like Sing-Off and the Pitch Perfect movies.

“A cappella literally ends up meaning ‘without accompaniment,’” said Weber, who was the cantor at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., and one of the judges at the first national a cappella competition in 2011. “This is ensemble music that frequently has a bit of beatboxing in the background.”

He’ll be one of the judges this weekend, along with Beth Sholom Cantor emeritus David Tilman; Julia Zadavsky, who did her formative training in Ukraine; Marsha Bryan Edelman, who has been affiliated with the Zamir Choral Foundation in various musical and managerial capacities; and Jennifer Steinberg, business director of Keystone A Capella.

They’ll evaluate the six teams — Jewkebox (Temple), Shabbatones (Penn), Chaimonics (Muhlenberg), Tizmoret (Queens), Ketzev (Hopkins) and Ani V’ata (NYU), who can have as many as 18 members — in such categories as artistry, artistic impression and pronunciation of Hebrew words. According to the rules, each teams will do three songs, with one in Hebrew, one in English with some kind of biblical, Israeli or Jewish theme and a third one of their choice.

While admitting not knowing quite what to expect, Frankel is confident of the kind of turnout like they once had for a 1999 Four Tenors concert featuring Marcello Giordani.

“Since I first became president over two years ago, I’ve been trying to figure out what we can bring in and do different when you have such a world-renowned synagogue building like ours,” Frankel said. “Then Cantor Weber and Gaston brought up the idea of a Jewish a cappella concert. It’ll be nice to have that kind of music for what we’d like to be an annual Jewish competition.”

Bernstein reached out to Jewish a cappella groups at 14 colleges within driving distance of Philadelphia. Some declined, while others had prior commitments.

“We’ll give out prizes to the top three finishers, then at the end of the event there will be display tables for six competitors and the ChaiLights [a professional a cappella group], where they’ll have flyers of their future events and be able to sell their CDs,” Bernstein said. “We don’t know if we’ll get 200 people or 700. We’re doing it on the bimah, removing all the furniture. There will be a sound system with wireless mikes.”

After each team sings, it’s all up to the judges.

“The judges have to look for the fine points,” Weber said. “How good is the beatboxer? If there’s choreography, how well they move around. Maybe they have soloists. You just have to balance everything out.” 

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