Archive for Sunday, March 15, 1992


March 15, 1992


Bulgarian music resembles an interchange where three superhighways meet, and standing in center is the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir.

The superhighways, of course, come from Western Europe, the Middle East and from Slavic countries. The historical mix has produced native music that can neither be expressed completely by Western notation nor performed well by singers trained in Western styles.

And yet the music of Bulgaria, as sung by the Female Vocal Choir, draws post-modern musicians eager to explore melodies and harmonies created outside a Western European context.

The Vocal Choir will perform at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Georgia Neese Gray Performance Hall in the Topeka Performing Arts Center as part of the Kansas University New Directions Series.

IN ADDITION to their performance, the choir members will join the Lawrence Women's Chorale for a private dinner Wednesday night.

The 24 women who make up the Bulgarian choir come from all parts of the country, which has a population of about 9 million. Although many lack the formal musical training found in Western concert choirs, they bring with them a deep knowledge and understanding of their own folk music traditions, which vary from region to region.

"When we choose singers for the choir, I'm looking for all the best qualities in voice,'' Dora Hristova, the group's conductor, said in a Tuesday telephone interview from a tour stop in Ann Arbor, Mich. "The singers come from every different part of the country. Each region has its own vocal tradition, so the singers represent different vocal styles.''

THE GROUP was founded in 1952 by composer Phillip Koutev, who wanted to preserve the folk traditions of Bulgarian music. At first, the choir performed mainly for state broadcast, but over the years it began touring around the Communist bloc and caught the interest of a Swiss impresario who issued a CD of their work in 1987.

In 1988, Nonesuch Records released the album, called "Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, Vol. I,'' in the United States. It made Billboard magazine's Top 200 list and caught the ears of such U.S. musicians as Terry Riley, who used the choir and the Kronos Quartet in a 1990 performance of Riley's "Cry of a Lady.'' The choir also performed at Lincoln Center in New York and the Symphony Hall in San Francisco as well as on "The Tonight Show'' and "Today'' on NBC. The group's second album won a Grammy in 1990.

HISTORY MAKES Bulgarian folk music so unsual. The country was settled both by Slavs and Turkish Bulgars in the sixth and seventh centuries. Today, Bulgarian, Turkish and Greek are still spoken in Bulgaria, and the musical traditions the people brought with them continued well into this century.

In the late 19th century, Bulgarian composers went West to study classical music styles. When they came back, like other artists of the romantic era, they sought out the folk music of their land and incorporated it into their compositions, Hristova said. That more-recent tradition continues and helps feed the Bulgarian Vocal Choir's repertoire, as Bulgarian composers arrange the music for the group into six-part harmonies.

But some of the music, which is performed accompanied by folk instruments, doesn't quite fit into a Western mode. Hristova said Bulgarian music is based on both the five-note and eight-note scales as well as Orthodox and Oriental patterns. Composers struggle write down the music in Western notation.

"THE COMPOSER (or arranger) listens to recordings (of folk performances), or he listens to the original songs sung by native singers, and then he notates it,'' she said. "But usually the notation is not perfect. The songs use improvisation and the styles are so different. This is why I choose soloists who come from the region where the songs originated. I try to use the soloists only for the songs from their region.''

The singing style, which can sound nasal, also befuddles Western singers. Hristova said the folk songs are built on layers and layers of tunes.

"Of course the music is very difficult to be performed by a singer trained in bel canto,'' she said. "It is almost impossible for these people to perform the music without sounding artificial. Much of the music can't be performed on the piano either.''

HRISTOVA HERSELF has been conducting choirs since she graduated from the National Conservatory in Bulgaria. When she was growing up, she played the piano and learned as much as she could about Western music, but she also learned her folk traditions by playing the accordion. Despite the more academic aspirations of her parents, she decided to pursue a career in conducting.

"My family was not encouraging,'' she said. "My family insisted I go to and graduate from the English high school. That is how I know English. But my teachers encouraged me in music.''

She now leads a group of women who grew up in less than cosmopolitan circumstances and who find themselves touring the globe and performing for people who never heard of Bulgarian folk music. The experience can be enlightening.

"Of course, the first time they go aboad they want to see everything,'' Hristova said. "Sometimes they are afraid because of the size of the stage or the audience. That makes them feel not so sure (of themselves). But I think after the first impression they become accustomed to the world.''

THE CHOIR found the work with Kronos and Riley particularly expanding, Hristova said.

"It was a very important experience for us,'' she said. "The chorus had just been in Sofia (the nation's capital) and had performed an oratorio, a classical composition by a Bulgarian composer. . . . Then we performed with Kronos and the composer Terry Riley. Kronos is a marvelous organization, and it was a change for us. Riley gave me the freedom to change some of the ornamentation, and in the first part of the composition he allowed us to improvise. It was a very fruitful experience for us.''

Since 1989, Bulgaria has been undergoing political changes leading away from the strict Communist rule of the past 45 years, although at a slower pace than in neighboring Romania or in Poland and the former East Germany. Still, changes have come. For example, Hristova now has the ability to drop people from the choir to keep things fresh.

"WE CHANGED the system,'' she said. "Two years ago they had a contract for a lifetime, for as long as they wanted to be in the chorus. Nowadays this has changed. They have a contract for one year. That way we can keep the women who work on their voices.''

But change can also threaten the culture of Bulgaria, which for so long has depended on the state for its support. The Vocal Choir, with its success in the West, is well-prepared to weather an economic storm, but other groups may founder, she said.

"Economics, politics and of course our cultural life face a crisis,'' she said. "I think that the state ensembles and orchestras will suffer greatly. We'll have less and less.''

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