Project lends new reach to a cappella performance

The Palmetto Vocal Project is a newly formed competitive and performing chorus specializing in a cappella singing, particularly celebrating the rich American musical tradition of barbershop harmony. Its membership is comprised of current and former college a cappella singers, professional actors and musicians, music educators, high school students, and men who simply enjoy raising their voices in song.

Mike Mancuso always enjoys introducing listeners to a cappella music for the first time. The look on their face says it all.

“Without exception, they didn't know what to expect, and they come up to me after the shows and say ‘I had no idea there was this kind of music.' ”

A cappella (“in the manner of the church”) music was religious in origin, later embracing secular vocal music from the Renaissance. Today, apart from the familiar barbershop quartet, a cappella has branched out significantly, given fresh impetus by competitive summits and such programs as NBC's “The Sing-Off.”

“The a cappella movement seems to have taken off over the past several years,” says Mancuso, president of the newly formed Palmetto Vocal Project, an a cappella ensemble thus far numbering 22 performers. “It's exemplified by a tight sound and close (four-part) harmony that is pleasing to the ear, with meaningful lyrics and a melody.

“You put emotion into your singing because you have nothing to help you along.”

A nonprofit group planning two self-produced concerts a year, plus performances for hire, the group also constitutes the Mount Pleasant chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, though the group's repertoire will vary from classical, gospel and barbershop to contemporary, country and doo-wop.

Its inaugural concert, “Overture, an A Cappella Gathering,” will be 8 p.m. Saturday at the Wando Performing Arts Center.

Mancuso moved to Mount Pleasant 18 months ago from Columbus, Ohio, hoping to sustain his passion for the form.

“When I came down here, I didn't know what I was going to find. But after I got involved with the Charleston Barbershop Chorus, I also began looking for something a little more challenging. So I formed a barbershop quartet with Derek Street, who teaches music at Pepperhill Elementary, and over time we began looking to sing in more varied genres than just barbershop.

“Now we sing choral and contemporary pieces as a cappella music. Most of the guys in the group are 35-40, but the age range is from the 20s to the mid-60s and older. At this point, we just want to let the city know we're here and be a part of the local arts community. We're happy to collaborate as well. We would love to do some combined performances.”

The project benefits from having its own in-house arranger in assistant director Robert Rund.

Mancuso says the optimum number of members would be 40 or so, especially for contests. To date, the project's rehearsals have been attended by singers from Savannah and Columbia as well as locals, and the goal is to evolve into a regional chorus.

Each regional district of the Barbershop Harmony Society holds an annual contest in the fall for choruses and in the spring for quartets to qualify for the society's International Contest and Convention in July.

“This is held in a different city every year in the U.S. or Canada. Next year's event will be in Toronto and that's the one we hope to qualify for. The talent level at these competitions is amazing, but everyone does this as a hobby. They don't get paid. They just love to sing, and they love to sing harmonies.”

Joining the members of the project as guests artists on Saturday will be the College of Charleston's Trippintones ensemble; the Vigilantes, a group of four collegians from the Southeast who were 2011 Collegiate Barbershop Quartet Contest Silver Medalists; the all-female Southern Harmony Chorus (aka the Sweet Adelines); the Charleston Barbershop Chorus; and the seniors-only Vintage Four Quartet.

For more information, call 410-7874 or email palmetto vocalproject@gmail.com.

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.