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Christmas miracle: Pentatonix and Mobile Symphony Orchestra make holiday history

By Tamara Ikenberg

December 15, 2013

MOBILE, Alabama— The Mobile Symphony Orchestra and a cappella pop stars Pentatonix made much more than music at this weekend's sold-out "Holiday Harmonies" concerts.

They made history.

The Saturday night and Sunday afternoon shows at the Saenger Theatre marked the first time that Pentatonix, winner of the third season of NBC's reality singing competition "The Sing-Off," ever sang with an orchestra.

The shows were also the first stop on Pentatonix's U.S. tour.

"You'd think (a cappella and an orchestra) would be like oil and water, but it blended beautifully," said Pentatonix fan Jenny Burson, 33. She and her friend Jennie Rice, 33, drove to the show from Ocean Springs, Miss.

Burson and Rice have followed Pentatonix since "The Sing-Off."

"These guys were just born with a gift," Burson said. "This is talent beyond talent."

Pentatonix and the MSO (mostly the strings) collaborated on songs including "Angels We Have Heard on High," British singer-songwriter Imogen Heap's gothic alt-rock masterpiece "Aha!," and "Carol of the Bells."

"Aha!" minus the MSO

Pentatonix also sang a fair share of songs on their own, including "Little Drummer Boy," "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons and the astonishing "Evolution of Music," a medley in which Pentatonix condenses more than a thousand years of music into a four-minute and a half hit-parade starting with Gregorian chants and concluding with "Call Me Maybe."


Pentatonix is made up of lead singers Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi and Kirstie Maldonado, bass Avi Kaplan and vocal percussionist extraordinaire Kevin Olusola.

They are all enormous talents and vivid personalities on their own. During the second half of the show, the tall, handsome Hoying presented a short history of the super-group.

He explained that he, Grassi and Maldonado grew up together in Arlington, Texas and attended the same high school and formed their own a cappella trio. Hoying playfully described them as "The biggest choir nerds of life."

When Hoying was in college at University of Southern California, a friend suggested that the trio would fare much better with the addition of a bass voice and a vocal percussionist.

Enter booming bass genius Avi Kaplan and mind-blowing vocal percussionist Kevin Olusola, a Yale University grad and award-winning cellist who Hoying discovered on youtube.

Olusola is really the glue that holds the harmonies together. His mouth is a miracle. Drum machine beats, cymbals, spoons, turntable scratches, robot sounds and more all emanate from him with seeming effortlessness. He's also a sensational singer.

When the five versatile voices come together as Pentatonix they create lush, layered, ultra-modern, techno and hip-hop-influenced soundscapes that prove "Rolling Stone" magazine's description of their style as "a cappella from the future."

There are really no words to describe how pitch-perfect, endearing and powerful they are when they perform.

They never miss a beat or an opportunity to take the melody into unexpected directions, breathtaking breakdowns and goosebump-raising, spine-tingling heights.

The sound is nothing short of supernatural.

And the audience appreciated it.

At times during Saturday's show, the crowd was so loud and impassioned it seemed like Justin Bieber was singing at The Saenger.

The crowd screamed "We love you!" and shrieked and hollered like crazed teenyboppers.

Kaplan emerged as the lead heartthrob of the group. The crowd went wild the few times Kaplan spoke into a microphone in his sexy, Barry White-squared voice. And when he demonstrated his amazing ability to sing two tones at once in what's called "overtone singing", the audience was in total awe.

"He has the lowest voice in the world," Hoying said.

Beatboxer Kevin Olusola also got a chance to present his unique skills solo. His cello and beatbox performance of Mark Summers' "Julie O" was one of the most magical moments of the show.

Olusola's talent is not of this world. The perfectly modulated pure emotion and beauty he wrung from both his natural and stringed instruments made the cello-beatbox performance one of the freshest, most magnificent and moving musical experiences I have ever heard in my life.

This youtube version isn't the same as hearing it live, but it's still pretty incredible:

"Holiday Harmonies" wasn't just about those five reality-defying voices.

The MSO also put on a spectacularly creative, humorous and brilliantly executed show of their own. Led by a jubilant Scott Speck, the symphony dazzled with all-new arrangements of seasonal favorites including a spicy samba take on "Let it Snow," a hilarious mash-up of "Jingle Bells" and John Philip Sousa filled with melodic patriotic punchlines, and an achingly gorgeous, exquisitely subtle rendition of Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria"

Speck also made a clever attempt to turn the scads of young concert-goers lured by Pentatonix into MSO regulars.

"It occurred to me there are some people here that don't come to the symphony," he playfully observed. "We hope we'll see you often here."

The piece he chose to seduce the youngsters into becoming symphony-goers was "Dance of the Tumblers" from "The Snow Maiden" by Rimsky Korsakov.

The rousing, bacchanalian piece transported the audience to a vodka-soaked Slavic dance party.

The evening ended with a spirited Christmas carol sing along and an encore that featured the MSO playing "Sleigh Ride" and Pentatonix singing a "Hit The Road Jack" mash-up.

"Holiday Harmonies" had to be the most eclectic, exuberant and out-of-this-world Christmas concert on this or any other planet.

Mobile won't soon forget this triumph that left concert-goers trembling with joy.

"I was screaming. I was grabbing my mother's hand (so tight) it was like I was going to cut off her circulation," said Brandi Richardson during intermission. Richardson, 18, traveled five hours with her mother from Atlanta, Georgia to attend. "I'm trying to calm down right now."

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