A Sonically Thrilling, Disquieting North American Premiere For Karmina Silec’s Toxic Psalms

by delarue

Last night at St. Ann’s Warehouse, the mighty but graceful Slovenian women’s choir Carmina Slovenica premiered their founder Karmina Silec’s breathtaking and equally relevant multimedia suite, Toxic Psalms to open this year’s Prototype Festival. It only makes sense that this work would come out of a part of the world which has seen so much trouble in the past couple of decades, yet it transcends national identity. Themes of absence and distant, implied horror were ever-present, as was a defiant feminist sensibility. The choice of music spanned the centuries and the globe and was all the more fascinating, and relevant, for the ambitious and striking arrangements of all but one of the older works. And while it wouldn’t be exactly accurate to characterize the movements of the choir as dance – Silec calls it “choregie” – the choreography was just as ambitious, and amplified the disturbing quality of the performance. The program repeats tonight at 8 PM as well as at 3 and 8 PM on Saturday, Jan 10, and at 5 PM on Jan 11. As of the wee hours of today (Jan 9), there are still a handful of tickets left for tonight’s and Sunday’s performances as well as a few more for Saturday’s shows. From the stunned reaction of the crowd last night, if you’re on the fence about seeing this, you’d better move.

The somberly clad choir opened with their backs to the rear wall of the stage beneath a black veil, justice depicted by a lone member gingerly balancing a couple of upside-down umbrellas on her head. The women massed and mingled apprehensively and took their time approaching what could have been a graveyard, yet in doing so they seemed to find empowerment and maybe closure. They walked in line through a field of lemons (what that was about was never clear) and managed not to make lemon zest out of them. Silec’s direction toyed with crowd dynamics on both the conformist and nonconformist sides with a coldly sardonic humor that offered momentary respite from the lingering bleakness of the music. The group artfully employed mirrors;, finally one of them broke the fourth wall in a flittingly comedic but ultimately chilling bit of narration.

Of the music on the bill, seemingly only the excerpt from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which concluded the program on an unconvincingly calm, benedictory note, was left more or less intact. Eerie Slavic close harmonies, from resonantly brooding to jarring and horrific, were everywhere, as was dizzying yet meticulously orchestrated counterpoint, from a sarcastic Karin Rehnkvist arrangement of a medley of Finnish folk songs through an aptly titled Lozje Lebic sound mosaic. Brief passages from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil and a plaintive more-or-less solo performance of a Syrian hymn offered a familiar, sheltering ambience before the storm that exploded at the edge of the crowd in Orwellian terror, a long excerpt from the Kalevala with music by Veljo Tormis. Some of the program’s early narration suggested that citizens of the current crop of democratic countries may be ill suited to overthrowing evil forces in power: this brought that idea full circle with an in-your-face intensity that would make Pussy Riot proud.