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Choral Music Review Print

Yale Women's Slavic Chorus - Brave Old Worlds

January 9, 2003 - Durham, NC:

It is both new and different, yet it also sounds timeless, intimate, and strangely familiar. The sounds that filled the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (ERUUF) on the evening of January 10 were probably a new experience for many in attendance. It was an evening not soon to be forgotten. The performers were eight young women that comprise the current incarnation of The Yale Women's Slavic Chorus. The note is their own: "Founded in 1969, the Yale Slavic Chorus is an a cappella chorus composed of women from the Yale University and New Haven communities. It performs a wide range of Eastern European folk songs in many different languages and styles. The repertoire of lyrical songs borrowed from authentic Slavic choruses tells of love, work, war, country life, and sorrow. In its performances, the chorus strives to maintain the tradition of dissonant harmonies, unusual rhythms, and distinctive vocal qualities which make Slavic music unique and exciting for so many listeners."

The sanctuary at ERUUF is an ideal venue for almost any ensemble. High ceilings, wooden interiors, and unobstructed views from any seat make this space one of the best-kept secrets in the Triangle, and it is especially conducive to a small vocal group.

There was a fair-sized audience, and I feel I can speak for everyone there that we felt very lucky to have experienced this concert. Perhaps attendance could have been increased through collaboration with the Slavic Languages departments at Duke and UNC. It became evident as the evening progressed that one of the members of the chorus was from around here and it was through her that this concert was arranged.

Before I describe the music itself, I have to address one major criticism of the concert. There were no program notes, written translations, or programs of any kind provided. For a concert of this kind, where a relatively unknown style and practice is being presented, this is a big shortcoming. I have no idea about the funding of this group, but even a simple, inexpensive presentation would have greatly enhanced the experience. Although before each song a member of the group recited the English translation and gave the title and country of origin, it would have been preferable to have had that in written form along with an introduction to the group and style and the members' names.

The group entered the sanctuary unannounced from the rear, and right away you knew you were in for something completely different. Dressed in traditional Slavic costumes, they arranged themselves in a tight semicircle and finished their first song of the evening.

Their leader, Erin Coughlin, provides a sort of primitive conducting pattern that seemed both superfluous and after a while visually disruptive. The songs were primarily from Bulgaria, but Russia, Estonia, Macedonia, Poland, Croatia, Ukraine and Yugoslavia were also represented. For the most part, they dealt with the basic elements of life: love, nature, family, jealousy, and land. One of the distinctive features of this music is its rhythmic and metrical variety. There wasn't a Western-type 4/4 measure to be heard the entire evening; instead, asymmetrical meters such as 5/8 and 7/8 were the norm. Throw in quarter tones, unusual scales and modes, and vocal techniques considered "incorrect" in Western practice and you have a sound that seems to be both avant-garde and medieval.

A common form in many of these songs is two groups, or soloists, singing against each other with a third commenting on the story. One especially memorable example of this involved two high soloists in an obbligato-type duet that can only be described as hypnotic, while a third incredibly low voice complemented them. Unfortunately I do not have names of the work or the performers.

The intonation of these women was nothing short of miraculous. In addition to the incredibly complex rhythmic and harmonic elements, sometimes you just marveled at the beauty of something as simple as their crystalline and perfect unisons - it was hard to believe it was eight different voices.

All works were performed in the original languages without music or notes of any kind. There was only one false entry, at the wrong pitch; they simply laughed about it and started over. Despite what must be extremely difficult music, they exuded a totally natural and effortless demeanor and each song was a new and thrilling adventure for the audience.

They performed two 35-minute sets and in all that time they had no props or instruments except for a crude drum used in two songs. Compare this, for example, with soloists in popular works like Messiah where they cling to their scores like life jackets.

This is more than a new aspect of "world" music although it tends to be marketed in that way since the huge success of groups like The Bulgarian Women's Choir. You can learn more about the Yale Women's Slavic Chorus by visiting their website, at http://www.yale.edu/ysc/ , and at http://home.pipeline.com/~asm/slavs/ .