For those of you who have listened for years to the stunning short filler clips on WUNC of the Bulgarian Women's Choir, you'll be happy to know that the men are no slouches either. On Thursday October 18 Duke University's Institute of the Arts inaugurated Illumination, a new series devoted to chamber choral and instrumental music from around the world, with a program by the Sofia Orthodox Choir. The a cappella ensemble of nine men, conducted by Miroslav Popsavov, performed in Duke Chapel, and if this concert is a harbinger of ensembles to come, run out and buy tickets for the entire series.
In describing this concert, it is difficult not to indulge in superlatives. The nine voices blended in a way we had never heard before: each individual voice was distinguishable but the blend was perfect. The first half of the program was devoted to sacred music of the Russian Orthodox Church, the second half to traditional Bulgarian secular music. The sacred music ranged from the fourteenth to the early twentieth century-including one piece by Tchaikovsky- but all the composers retained those traditional elements we normally associate with Russian Orthodox church music: the flowing rhythm of liturgical chant and responsorial dialogue between choir and soloist, especially low bass. In addition, there was a kind of passionate religiosity embodied in the music and projected by the singers.
After a couple of introductory pieces, the Choir sang an excerpt from the Orthodox Mass for the Dead by Nikolay Bakhmetev, dedicated to the victims of September 11. Suddenly, this was no longer a concert but an intimate religious ceremony of remembrance, in the course of which the singers knelt on the stone steps of the Chapel choir.
While it is impractical to discuss each of the two dozen works on the program, a note about the Russian Orthodox liturgical music is in order. There was tremendous variation in style of these works, ranging from the 14th century's Sveti Ioan Kukuzel's Praise Ye the Lord from the Heavens , similar to twelfth and thirteenth century Western organum (a drone over fast moving upper parts), to Alexander Arkhangelsky's Thinking Over Judgment Day , which takes on an almost Verdian character. Yet, despite the incorporation of contemporaneous musical style, every composer was careful to retain the essential nature of the medieval liturgical chant.
Unfortunately, the Choir, making its first tour of the United States, came unprepared with the niceties American audiences expect in their programs: program notes, translations of the texts and even the names of the singers (We had to look up all the composers' dates at home.)
Outstanding among the singers and featured as soloist in many of the selections, was bass Emil Dakov. The power and resonance of his voice is unsurpassed, as is the span of his range and precision of his intonation. In Issay Dobroven's Ballad of Stenka Razin he showed himself to be a good actor as well. Dakov reminded us that the world's best interpreters of Boris Godunov were so often Bulgarians.
At the other end of the vocal range, soloists performed to eerie perfection the high harmonics over the Choir that sound like natural overtones. This is a technique traditional in Russian Orthodox music, serving as an antipode to the more familiar bassi profundi. In both instances, Duke Chapel was certainly the appropriate venue, allowing the Choir to show off to greatest advantage.
The response of the audience can best be described by the scene around a little table in the rear of the chapel at intermission. The audience descended like locusts on the table where a huge pile of the choir's CD quickly sold out. We've never seen anything like it.