A girl had a competition with a nightingale to determine who was the better singer. “If I win, I get to cut off your wings,” the girl tells the bird. And then the girl wins.
‘Please don’t cut off my wings,” the defeated bird pleads. “You can cut off my feet instead. I need my wings to fly.”
“You know what, I’ll let you keep your wings, and your feet too,” the girl replies. “I’ll be satisfied knowing that I sing better than a nightingale.”
That was one of the happier stories that the eight women of the Yale Slavic Chorus sang last night at Barbes, in Macedonian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Georgian and other languages. But there were many even more colorful, and sinister narratives in the group’s two wild, feral yet meticulously arranged sets. For example, the tale about the five hundred Ukrainian construction workers who decide on a lark to wall in the first worker’s girlfriend to show up in the morning. So everybody who arrived at the worksite the next day did so alone…except for one unfortunate guy who forgot to tell his beloved not to bring him lunch. You can guess the rest. Did Edgar Allen Poe’s Cask of Amontillonado influence the song? It’s not likely that he ever heard it. Maybe the song and the story exist completely independent of each other. Music this cool poses questions like that.
Singers are expected to be able to shift on a dime between languages, and styles, but even so, this group is amazingly eclectic. The program was well-paced: they opened with a couple of the night’s more stately, stark numbers, then began introducing the eerie close harmonies, whoops and hollers and swoops and dives and “hey”s that recur throughout the Balkans and often filter into Russian and Ukrainian folk music. If memory serves right, they went as far east as Georgia and as far west as what is now the Czech Republic.
Each group member got to introduce a number or two and give the crowd the gist of the lyrics. “I am the fairest one of all” turned out to be a common theme, as was seduction: a couple of the songs were pretty racy. Often the group would pair off a duo or trio, who would later be joined by the rest of the ensemble. Otherwise, the stereo effect created by the exchange of phrases between individual voices was as fascinating to watch as it was difficult to pull off seamlessly – and this group made it look effortless. This music is difficult as it is, especially for those who haven’t grown up with it (meaning pretty much everyone, even in the regions where it originated), and on top of that, several chorus members were called on to belt from the lows to great heights. And they all delivered. While it’s probably not fair to single out any one member, considering the varying demands of the arrangements, steelcutter soprano Olivia Noble and her somewhat lower-pitched but no less dynamic bandmate Jola Pach are both scary-good. And soprano Claire Gottsegen, who seemed to project the most pure unrestrained power of anyone in the group, at least at this show, also happens to be their most petite member.
Being college students, this is a pretty young ensemble. It’s possible that some of these women, just like their counterparts in villages and towns across what was once Iron Curtain territory, will pursue other interests beyond singing. But let’s hope that all of them, and the three alums who joined them for the encore, decide to stick with it. The world’s a better place with voices as enchanting as theirs.