Belgian choirgirls at the Rio Theatre, April 7 2011
– review by Shawn Conner/photos by Robyn Hanson
You wouldn’t know it by their name, but Scala and Kolacny Brothers is a Belgian girls’ choir accompanied and conducted by two brothers (okay, maybe that part is semi-obvious). The act, popular in Europe, has been around since 1996, but is just getting some notice in North America; the choir’s version of Radiohead’s “Creep” (yes, they cover classic alt-rock songs, mostly) was used as background in the trailer for last year’s The Social Network.
Is there more to the group than just dozens of female voices singing familiar songs in choir arrangements, while two enthusiastic men play melancholic piano and conduct their young charges? Not really, but as shown at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver last night, that is enough.
A just over half-full theatre, populated by other choir members along with music lovers and the curious, warmly greeted the brothers and their 23 girls, all wearing little black dresses. Brothers Steven (who plays the piano and composes songs for the choir) and Stijn (who conducts) seemed honestly humbled by the reception on this, the first show of a North American tour; the girls, who were stone-faced while singing, offered up shy smiles at the applause and standing ovation.
Images on the theatre’s movie screen illustrated some of the songs (a dancing skeleton for one, black and synchronized animated red rubber boots in another) and some backing tracks provided backup vocals and beats, but for the most the voices and Steven’s piano carried the day on songs by Metallica, Foo Fighters, and U2.
The choir nailed difficult parts like the bridge in The Police‘s “Every Breath You Take” and sounded brilliant on Peter Gabriel‘s “Solsbury Hill”; early on, they stripped Kings of Leon‘s “Use Somebody” down to its bittersweet core, and for the encore made a Christmas carol out of “Creep”. While the girls stood stock-still during their parts, Stijn threw himself into his conducting with Jim Carrey-like physicality – most notably on Alanis Morissette‘s “You Oughta Know”.
At worst, the Kolacny brothers could be accused of over-simplified arrangements – on most of the songs, the girls sang in unison rather than harmony, and there was little if any layering of vocal parts. And Steven’s own piano-based compositions, including a techno track, didn’t quite measure up to the tried and true covers.
But the sheer beauty of the voices, the novelty of hearing familiar songs in a more spiritual context, and of course hearing almost two dozen Belgian schoolgirls sing “You’re so fucking special” more than made up for the few lapses.
The choir is on tour now in North America – skip that four-piece bearded indie-rock band playing in your town that night and see Scala and Kolacny Brothers.