Early Saturday evening the female choir Bulgarian Voices Angelite performed at the Korskirken in Bergen as part of the Bergen International Music Festival.
Korskirken, an old stone church (built ca 1150) almost literally at the city centre, was at most half-full, and that's a real shame. A concert with a choir like this is really an extraordinary experience, since the sounds and harmonies from this region are so different from anything else. And there are probably few better opportunities to get into this kind of music than to listen to this particular choir.
To the world at large, the Bulgarian Voices Angelite were totally unknown until the end of the cold war. The choir grew out of the remains of the old State Television Choir, dating back to 1952. Since the fall of communism, they have gained world fame, performed at Red Square in Moscow, received a Grammy nomination in 1999 and performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert, to name but a few achievements. Nowadays the choir consists of around 20 women from all parts of Bulgaria under the leadership of Georgi Petkov, who took over the direction of the choir in 1999. For most performances, the proud women all wear colourful costumes from regions across Bulgaria.
This evening they performed two sets of 45 minutes. The first was a collection of nine pieces of Bulgarian orthodox church music, while the second consisted of ten Bulgarian folk songs.
The most obvious technical difference between these sets is that the orthodox aesthetic demands less vibrato and phrasing than the folk music where the ornamentation is very rich. Bulgarian folk music has an uncanny sound, due to its unique approach to harmony, polyphony and rhythm. It is impossible not to notice the asymmetric measures of Bulgarian rhythm patterns, with odd time signatures like 9/8 and even composites like (15+14)/8. And the use of different scales and close harmonies is so advanced that it at times is borderline dissonant, giving the audience a sense of something very archaic blending with something much more modern, even on the edge of avant-garde. The occasional injection of modern harmonies in the otherwise traditional folk songs is a deliberate move from Petkov, adding a new dimension to their music. The result is an incredibly fascinating and very impressive soundscape ranging from the delicate to the explosive.
With the music ranging from very beautiful church music to more powerful and happy folk music where the members couldn't help but smile, the concert was a sublime experience. Should the choir come your way, make sure you don't miss them, because you simply don't get many opportunities to experience something like this!