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Ambassadors of Harmony take second in international competition

Ambassadors of Harmony 2008  300 pixels
St. Louis Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 7, 2008 - The Ambassadors of Harmony placed second at the Barbershop Harmony Society's international competition in Nashville on July 4. The chorus, with a score of 94.7 out of a possible 100, finished three tenths of a point behind the Masters of Harmony chorus.

Also at the conference, the Gas House Gang quartet and Dr. David Wright were inducted into the Barbershop Hall of Fame. The Gas House Gang – Joe Fink, Rich Knight, Rob Henry and the Ambassadors of Harmony director Jim Henry – formed in 1987. Fink left the group in 1991, replaced by Kipp Buckner. Rob Henry died in 2003, and the group finished their schedule through 2005 with guest performers before retiring.

Dr. Wright is a composer, arranger and historian of barbershop music. He served as director of the Ambassadors of Harmony from 1981 to 1990 and from 1999 to 2001. A professor of mathematics , he chairs the mathematics department at Washington University in St. Louis.

Our previous story:

Ron Morden takes the scenic route to choir practice. Every Thursday he drives 400 miles from his home outside Des Moines, Iowa, to St. Charles, Mo., to practice with the Ambassadors of Harmony. These days, the trip costs him $100 in gas. But it's more than worth it, he says.

"It is such a fantastic experience. It's the epitome of singing," Morden said of the St. Charles-based a capella chorus.

The Ambassadors sing a broad repertoire, from Broadway show tunes to gospel. But whether they're singing an upbeat tune from "Aladdin" or a classical Scottish air, it's always done in the barbershop style's signature four-parts, with 62 basses, 35 baritones and 15 tenors harmonizing alongside the 50 leads singing melody.

The 163 men and boys who make up the Ambassadors "come from all walks of life and career fields and distances" and range in age from 12 to 85, said director Jim Henry. The chorus retains a handful of charter members from its  beginnings in 1963. And this year, a record five boys under the age of 13 are singing with the chorus.

Age differences aside, the one thing the Ambassadors do have in common is harmony -- and they belt out all four parts of it in a manner befitting their international awards.

Last week's practice had veterans and newcomers alike excitedly preparing for the July 3 International Chorus Competition in Nashville, Tenn., where they hope to repeat past successes, which include both a gold and silver medal. The Ambassadors' 163-man chorus will be one of the largest in the competition, squaring off against other choruses from as far away as Sweden and as close to home as Kansas City, Mo.

During their last practice before the competition, the Ambassadors treated a casual audience of 50 gathered in the practice room at Memorial Hall in Blanchette Park to a run-through of their competition-ready songs.

The first piece "Love Walked In," arranged in-house by associate director David Wright, is sung as a tender tribute to a loved one, making use of dramatic crescendos and tempo contrasts to capture the audience's emotions. The second song, also arranged by Wright, is an energetic medley of "Get Me to the Church on Time" and "This Joint is Jumpin'," which demonstrates the Ambassadors' ability as all-around entertainers through lively choreography and comedic timing.

At Thursday's practice, no detail of the men's performance was too small for the directors to pick apart. The chords had to be perfect, the choreography polished. But Henry continuously reiterated a common theme -- the one thing he said would determine the winner.

"Ultimately, this is a contest of emotion," Henry said. "Whoever shows the most emotion wins it -- if not the medal, the audience. And that's what matters."

Henry has been performing with the group for 33 years, since he was 11 years old, and he feels confident in the Ambassadors' chances, though he is quick to point out the stiff competition -- like six-time winner the Masters of Harmony from Santa Fe Springs, Calif.

Despite the competition, performer and media coordinator Hal Maples has long believed in the Ambassadors' potential. He joined the chorus in 2001 after he got "hooked" at a visitors' night.

"I was convinced we could win it all in competition," Maples said. "And three years later, we did."

That big win at the 2004 International Chorus Championship was a first for the Ambassadors. The group took a mandatory three-year break from competition after the win, returning just last year to grab up second place after a tie-breaker for first.

The Ambassadors' next performance will be 1 p.m., Aug. 23 at the First Baptist Church in St. Charles as part of the St. Louis Area Harmony Festival.

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