Concert will celebrate 75 years of Barbershop music in the Berkshires
PITTSFIELD -- Julie Bertelli of Pittsfield is hooked on barbershop music.
She has been enthralled by the a cappella, four-part harmony since she first heard it sung 36 years ago.
"I said, ‘I have to do that,'" she recalled, "Three weeks later I joined the Berkshire Hills Chorus."
On Sunday, Bertelli and the all-female chorus join their male counterparts, Berkshire Hillsmen, for a diamond jubilee celebration of what they call "a pure American music form."
The two Pittsfield-based groups will perform a scripted musical entitled "60 Minutes: Give or Take", honoring the 75th anniversary of the Barbershop Harmony Society. The show begins 2 p.m. at Barrington Stage Company on Union Street.
Originally named the Society for the Preservation and Propagation of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in the United States, the Barbershop Harmony Society grew out of a 1938 songfest in Tulsa, Okla., to formally recognize barbershop quartets around the country.
Barbershop harmony is rooted in the music and style of singing brought to the U.S. in the 1800s by the slaves from Africa and by European immigrants, according to Dan Burkhard, president of the 18-member Berkshire Hillsmen.
The thrill and challenge of singing barbershop music is -- it's all about the voice.
"I played the trumpet for years, but this you can practice in your car," Burkhard said. "You can't do that with a trumpet."
Berkhsire Chorus member Janie Pellish added, "The wonderful challenge is no accompaniment - your body is your instrument."
Barbershop music consists of four voice types: tenor, bass, melody (lead) and baritone.
"The minute you put baritone in the mix, that makes it barbershop," Marcy Cohen said. "Baritone is notes that don't make sense."
Cohen and her choral mates demonstrated the point during a recent joint rehearsal with the Hillsmen at the Universal Unitarian Church in Pittsfield.
With Bertelli directing the Berkshire Hills Chorus, she first had the tenors sing, followed by the bass voices, lead and then all three together.
Once the baritones joined in, they elevated the song to the recognizable barbershop harmony.
"Exactly," the chorus said collectively.
While baritones define the sound of barbershop music, those singing the melody have all the pressure to make it work, according to Scott Keough.
"You have to know the voice part and carry everyone else," said Keough, a veteran lead with the Hillsmen. "Baritone and bass play off you."
Despite the vital roles of baritone and lead, barbershop singers are all considered equals -- no star power required, according to the local groups.
"I love how we perform together," said Maureen Feldman of Lee. "You become a family and we care for each other. That makes it good."
At 17, Feldman is one of the youngest singers with the 25-member Berkshire Hills Chorus. Formed in 1969, the chorus belongs to the New England/ eastern Canada chapter of Sweet Adelines International, competing against other barbershop groups each spring in Springfield.
The Berkshire Hillsmen debuted in June, 1957 as the Pittsfield chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, Northeastern District. The music men also perform competitively and have won recognition as a small chorus many times, Burkhard said.
The music men and women each consist of two quartets and one octet, as well as each group singing as one. The Hillsmen and chorus travel separately throughout the Berkshire region, performing at retirement homes, weddings, fairs and other events.
Their performances also educate the public that barbershop harmony goes beyond the image of four guys with mustaches standing around a barber's chair, ready to give a customer a shave. The music range includes spiritual, rock, patriotic, as well as renditions of traditional barbershop songs, some made famous by the 1957 Broadway hit, "The Music Man."
"You have to see us in all our glitter and bling -- we can be pretty jazzy," said Marcy Cohen.
"The music is funny, informative and clever," added Dick Riedel, the Hillsmen's interim director.
Riedel took over for Mike Joyce, who died last December after a 51-year stint with the group, 12 years as its musical leader. Sunday's show also celebrates Joyce's life and the legacy of singing he left behind.
The two groups also view the performance as a way to draw new recruits, musically inclined or not.
"If we don't get anyone, we hope people understand what barbershop music is," said Keough.
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What: '60 Minutes: Give or Take' Performed by the Berkshire Hillsmen and Berkshire Hills Chorus as a tribute to 75 years of the Barbershop Harmony Society
When: Sunday, 2 p.m.
Where: Barrington Stage Union Street, Pittsfield
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