Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Sound Of The Season

Both ABC and NBC debuted new shows on Monday night. Both will have a limited run this week, but while one has the potential to become a regular series, this time around I'm going to be reviewing the one that has the potential – if people are watching – to become a holiday standard. That show is Clash Of The Choirs on NBC.

For me, choral music has always been associated with Christmas and I'm willing to bet that most people in North America or Europe – regardless of religious faith – are the same way because this is the time of year when music performed by choirs comes close to being ubiquitous. I also know a little about choral competitions. As a student in public school in Saskatoon in the 1960s singing in the school choir or with your class was almost mandatory as was participation in the city-wide choir competition. It wasn't necessarily something I looked forward to – the adjudicators seemed to take great pleasure in pointing out the faults in the singing of seven, eight, nine and ten year old kids. They usually pointed out something which standing up there you knew you didn't do. Indeed the last time I participated in one of those competitions was in 1966. The next year my class opted out of the competition because the previous year's adjudicators claimed we had sung "deserted are our hollowed sheep" when collectively we knew we had sung the correct words, "deserted are our huddled sheep." The last time I sang in public as part of a choir was in 1968 at the Saskatoon Press Club (a long and boring story, but at the same time a treasured memory for me) and while these days I can barely carry a tune in a bucket let alone stay in key and on pitch, I still appreciate the hard work that goes into singing as part of a choir. That's part of why I was looking forward to Clash Of The Choirs.

While Clash Of The Choirs is produced by NBC and BBC Worldwide America, the actual concept for the show comes from Scandinavian production company Friday TV. There the show is called Singalong but while the details may differ, the premise is the same in both versions. A celebrity goes back to their hometown to put together a choir of twenty members which then goes through a training process. After the training, the choirs go head to head in a live competition (which explains why I don't have an image for this show) over a period of three nights, with the winner being announced on the fourth night. And while the Scandinavian version of the series rewards the winning choir with all expense paid trips, the American version is for charity. The winning choir will earn $250,000 for a local charity chosen by the celebrity choir director.

The celebrities selected by NBC ran a gamut of age, experience and musical styles, not to mention parts of the country. Nick Lachey, formerly of the "boy band" 98 Degrees, (not to mention being married to Jessica Simpson) formed a choir in Cincinatti. Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child represented Houston Texas, Michael Bolton picked his choir in New Haven Connecticut, country singer Blake Shelton selected in Oklahoma City, and Patti Labelle looked to find a choir in Philadelphia. In the show's first episode, which ran for two hours, we were "treated" to the audition process that each singer went through (and in some cases had to endure). Fortunately coverage of the audition process was kept relatively brief so that it was not entirely like American Idol auditions where we are inundated with footage of bad singers. Oh there were bad singers in the process, as well as people who thought that singing in a choir was optional and they could get by with dance moves. There were also people who insisted on songs that the celebrities had made famous, a process that didn't necessarily endear them to their prospective leaders – Patti Labelle very quickly came to hate bad renditions of Lady Marmalade even telling people who said they were going to sing it, "Please don't." There were human interest stories in each of the locations, whether it was a girl who gave Nick his first kiss in high school (and who incidentally has a tremendous voice), the two soldiers who auditioned for Blake in Oklahoma City (the both made it and sang in uniform on the show), or the 77 year-old lady who impressed Michael Bolton.

Once the behind the scenes footage was shown the choirs performed. In this first round most of the songs seemed to be pop songs of various types, although Patti Labelle's group did The Whole World In Your Hands. Nick Lachey's choir did Natasha Bedingfield's Unwritten and performed it primarily as a choral number with limited use of soloists. Kelly Rowland's group from Houston sang George Michael's Freedom in a performance that was sharp even though I found some fault with the soloists. They brought it together at the end though. The third group to perform was Michael Bolton's and it didn't live up to my expectations either from Bolton or from choirs in general. The whole thing felt like a showcase for the single soloist with nineteen back-up singers. It was one of the two worst performances of the night. The other weak performance followed with the Oklahoma City Choir fronted by Blake Shelton. It should be noted that Shelton readily admitted that he knew absolutely nothing about choirs – he had never even been in one – and it showed though the audition process and the actual performance. They did my fellow Canadian Tom Cochrane's Life Is A Highway, and while it's a song that could probably work with a choir, I don't really think it did much for this particular group. The final performance was from Patti Labelle's group and it was an amazing experience. The choir came together beautifully, as a choir with the soloists feeding into the choir rather than being out front and expecting the choir to support them. It reminded me of some of the great gospel performances I've heard over the years.

The mechanical parts of the show on the other hand may need a bit of work. Hosted by Maria Menounos of the Today Show and Access Hollywood, the show decided not to go with a judges' panel of any sort. Instead the celebrities whose choirs weren't singing were asked to comment on the performances. Naturally there was absolutely no criticism, constructive or otherwise, about the performance just comments about how great the choirs were and how wonderful the celebrity leader had done. I'm not sure that this was particularly helpful. Certainly for the viewers, who vote after each night's performance on which choir was best, this mutual self-congratulation was less than helpful since it didn't give them much idea of what was right and what was wrong with the performances. And while there were a couple of standout performances (my personal favourites were the Cincinnati and Philadelphia choirs and my least favourite was Bolton's New Haven group) not having any real critiques may make the voting procedure less about the quality of the singing and more about the popularity of the celebrity leaders. Maybe I'm flashing back to those elementary school choir competitions, but I would have liked to have seen at least some critical comments made. You don't necessarily need Simon Cowell style snarky comments for this show, but I'm convinced you need someone who can point out strengths and weaknesses. I'm also not sure about Maria Menounos as host. I found her voice a bit irritating. I've seen some criticism of her attitude; there were times when she interrupted people or cut them off. I'm not going to criticise her on that for the simple reason that the show was live to air and she had to keep it with a strict two hour time limit.

In honesty, I don't believe that I can say that Clash Of The Choirs is a show that has ongoing series appeal like that other BBC Worldwide series Dancing With The Stars. I do feel however that it is a show that fits with this time of the year. While I'm not entirely convinced that American audiences will embrace the concept (I fear that the ratings will stink although under the circumstances NBC isn't going to dump it), it is a welcome respite from reruns of whatever NBC has to rerun (the cupboard seems pretty bare over there even without the strike making a mess of things), and decades old Christmas specials. And while I probably would have preferred to see the show wind up its run closer to Christmas Eve than it will, or add an extra choir to run for a full week (the final episode airs Thursday night) I don't think that's something that should stand in the show's way. The show isn't perfect, but for a one week event at a time of the year when choral music asserts itself in our consciousness I think it works. I just hope that NBC is wise enough to recognise that this probably won't work as a sweeps event. If they are, and if they keep it as a bit of a Christmas treat, they may just have something that will become a holiday tradition in a lot of houses.

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