Los Angeles Concert Review: PENTATONIX FOURTH OF JULY WITH FIREWORKS (The Hollywood Bowl)

by Tony Frankel on July 5, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

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A TONIX FOR WHAT AILS YOU

The fireworks went off both on and above the Hollywood Bowl stage last weekend. After five short selections by American composers performed by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West, the entrancing and loquacious conductor Thomas Wilkins took a back seat after intermission to a huge phenomenon in a capella singing, Pentatonix (often abbreviated as PTX), a quintet originating in Arlington, Texas. Their music is defined by their own techno-pop arrangement style, a strong presence of low bass vocals, and a diverse range of vocal percussion. Their work, mostly in, but not limited to, the pop music style, consists of mostly covers (although their last album contained mainly originals), sometimes in the form of medleys.

At the Bowl, we got two such medleys: an ambitious one containing snippets from the wide-ranging catalog of Michael Jackson (from “ABC” and “I’ll Be There” running through “”Billie Jean” and “Man in the Mirror”); and their collection of hits from the French electronic duo Daft Punk (which includes “Get Lucky,” Celebrate” and “One More Time”). It was the latter, arranged by all five singers with Ben Bram, which won them a “Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella” Grammy in 2015.

Both medleys were done without orchestra, and it really showed off the group’s pyrotechnic vocal display; out of the 13-song set-list, however, only one other was a capella—a simple, smooth rendition of Elvis Presley’s ”Can’t Help Falling in Love.” While it was a natural idea to have Wilkins and the orchestra backing up the headliners, the music often drowned out the things that make Pentatonix special (the lyrics of the opening number, “Sing,” were completely obliterated).

Still, many songs remained special, and certainly pleased the over 17,000 fans (all three performances were sold out): John Lennon’s “Imagine” (which showcased the counter tenor of Mitch Grassi) had a sincere, soulful tone, while Kanye West’s “Coldest Winter” was the most successful at blending orchestra and group. Both songs showcased PTX’s astounding vocal range, including Avi Kaplan’s chasm-deep bass, Kevin Olusola’s beatbox percussion, Scott Hoying’s boy-band baritone, and Kirstie Maldonado’s beautiful mezzo.

From standard (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”) to classical (a fairly well-known Bruckner motet “Christus factus est” leads into pop/electronica songstress Imogen Heap’s “Aha!”), to faithful recreations (an encore of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”), this uber-inventive group sounded great.

But there needs to be more than genuine personalities and a hypnotic blend of awesome vocals. The group hasn’t gone beyond their Glee-like, America’s-Next-Best-Thing superficiality, and they’ve yet to develop a signature style that involves something like dancing or inventive patter—anything to break up that teen-beat sameness (their dialogue of “Thanks a lot” and “We’re honored to be here” was less than sophomoric, especially after Wilkins’ powerful  speaking). In concert, the excitement and novelty starts to wear thin, even as we’re treated to a superb cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

The program’s first half was so great that its short length disappointed. Jerry Goldsmith’s spirited, steady, and insistent Fireworks captured a pioneer soul with its filmic, Copeland-esque excitement. Taken from New England Triptych, William Shuman’s “Chester,” originally a church hymn, was adopted by the Continental Army as a marching song—propulsive and jubilant, the orchestra matched the work’s ruggedness and tenacity. The significantly better sound design at the Bowl upped the dramatic aspect of John Williams’ “Yoda’s Theme”—the sonorous cellos, which often took the melody, and the rich vibrations of the tinkling harp were resoundingly resonant. Recognizing vets in the amphitheater, Bob Lowden’s Armed Forces Salute interspersed Civil War themes with “The Caisson Song,” “Semper Paratus,” “The Marines’ Hymn,” “The U.S. Air Force,” and “Anchors Aweigh.” Consummate orchestrator Carmen Dragon’s iconic arrangement of “America the Beautiful” (Samuel Ward’s song almost became our National Anthem) was given an emotional, inspirational, and stunning rendition.

And it was pure synchronism that had a razzle dazzle fireworks display designed by Paul Souza done to the three most popular marches of John Philip Sousa. This thrilling combination never wears thin.

Pentatonix photos posted by @ptxofficial
Wilkins and Fireworks photos courtesy of LA Phil

July 4th Fireworks Spectacular with Pentatonix
The Hollywood Bowl
Hollywood Bowl Orchestra
Thomas Wilkins, conductor
US Air Force Band of the Golden West
played July 2-4, 2017
for tickets, visit Hollywood Bowl
for more info, visit Pentatonix

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lorien Loveshade July 6, 2017 at 7:58 pm

I felt it was great. And that’s not just because I grew up with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and a really good friend performed in it either!

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Nicole July 11, 2017 at 4:54 am

SIX years, THREE grammys, NINE albums, best-selling Christmas album, multiple guest appearances (including performing for Tom Hanks at the presidential medal of freedoms awards) and their own TV special, sold-out shows in the states and abroad , collaborations with icons of the music industry (Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton) all while being actively involved in charities, creating solo projects, and just living their VERY humble lives. They ARE humbled to be performing there. “Glee-like”? “Americas-Next-Best-Thing”? They’ve changed the face of a capella in every imaginable way for six years. They introduced it to a generation that would just shrug off their parents running off to a “Straight No Chaser” concert. Anyone making a comparison to Glee or that considers their humble on-stage dialogue as “less than sophomoric” or feels that after six-years they have “yet to develop their signature style” is more than just jaded-they clearly haven’t been paying attention and did not do their research.

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Tony Frankel July 11, 2017 at 3:43 pm

Thanks for writing in Nicole. You’re clearly a fan, and I completely understand your defense of Pentatonix, but I’m not reviewing their career — I’m covering this performance and only this performance. I’m also not referring to their signature style in music, but to their performance style.

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