In Review

Kitka Vocal Ensemble

5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars - 'Outstanding - Starkie!'
Old First Church, San Francisco
Review by Jeanne Powell

With this year’s annual December concert series, Kitka celebrates 40 years of fearless sonic exploring of haunting music from eastern Europe and Eurasia, along with vocal practices from Armenia, the Ukraine, Georgia (just south of Russia) and Turkey. Included in their impressive repertoire is music from the Balkan countries — Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, and parts of the former Yugoslavia: Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia.

This women’s vocal ensemble of nine has traveled from Oakland, California to rural villages in the above nations and geographic areas in order to commune with female elders, who are often the last links to traditions which are centuries old. As has been said before, “the ravishing textures of the women’s voices, unearthly cadences, angular rhythms and unfamiliar languages make Kitka’s performances an enthralling experience.”

This year’s concert is entitled Wintersongs: Weathering the Storm; and it is inspired by worldwide concern about accelerated climate change. The ensemble includes Shira Cion, Kelly Atkins, Janet Kutulas, Briget Boyle, Erin Lashnits Herman, Hannah Levy, Maclovia Quintana, Katya Schoenberg and Lily Storm.

At their Old First Church concert, where Kitka has been performing for more than three decades, the singers entered the packed sanctuary from the rear, singing and clapping with long-handled wooden spoons as they made eye contact with audiences on the main floor and in the balcony. Their costumes ¬†featured identical patterns but in different colors — black, red, sea blue. They formed a semicircle during performance.

One of their members announced they had pondered how to raise their voices about what is happening to our environment, and they chose “ecology” as the theme for these winter concerts. Just as ecology deals with relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings, so does ensemble singing involve relationships between melody, rhythm and harmony. In keeping with that awareness, Kitka reminded us that Old First Church stands on Ohlone land. For Native Americans, song is a medium for connection with Nature.

Before beginning the concert, Kitka asked audience members to open their portals of perception and to listen to the ecology of the music. You may hear the roar of the ocean, the crackling of fire, the silence of snow falling, the sound of raindrops on a rooftop.

What we experienced was uplifting and transformative — layers and waves of music flowing over and around us, through the talents of singers using the human voice as an instrument of celebration, supplication, joy and spiritual encouragement for those who wish to save our planet.

Kitka Women's Vocal Ensemble
Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble. Photo: John Nilsen

Their first set dealt with Earth, and the second set with water. We were asked to recall the power and beauty of the ocean and the power of water in general. Their intent: to move beyond fear and despair as we work to restore the planet.

Deeply impressed by two Russian Orthodox penitential verses, Kitka commissioned poet and musician Gala Yaroshevsky to create a reimaged contemporary penitential lyric in Russian, which they performed (with texts in their hands). It is a cross between a keen (lamentation) and a paen (tribute), from humanity to Mother Earth, promising to make amends.

The Kitka ensemble has produced 14 critically acclaimed recordings, songbooks and soundtracks for major motion pictures as well as independent films.

After intermission Kitka members returned to the stage in new costumes, wearing tiaras and ringing a couple of bells. They sang more remarkable songs, including Nakuko- Dzaguzite, a spring calling song utilizing a crescendo typical of traditional Baltic pagan singing styles. And they finished with Voisa-Harira,  an exuberant song comprised entirely of nonsense syllables and sharing a message of contagious joy.

The Kitka ensemble has produced 14 critically acclaimed recordings, songbooks and soundtracks for major motion pictures as well as independent films. And the word “Kitka”? It means “bouquet” in Bulgarian and Macedonian. Videos exist on youtube. Highly recommended.

Old First Church is an inclusive community of faith, first established in 1849. Located on Nob Hill, it is the oldest active Protestant congregation in California. Old First describes itself as constantly renewed through a wide spectrum of activities including its popular concert series (since 1970). The musical events feature chamber music, piano recitals, world music, jazz and choral concerts.

Lead photo: Vincent Louis Carrella

Jeanne is a published poet and essayist. She holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of San Francisco. Jeanne has taught in the CS, UB and OLLI programs at universities in the City. Her books in print include MY OWN SILENCE and WORD DANCING from Taurean Horn Press.