Live Review: Kitka Casts Spells at Old First Church

Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014
Old First Church, San Francisco

If saccharine Christmas carols about Rudolph and Frosty make your chestnuts grow cold, then Kitka's for you. At the Bay Area choral group's annual “Wintersongs” celebration at Old First Church, veteran bandmate Janet Kutulas called out “Frosty the Snowman” for what it is: a holiday melody so “hideous that when you hear it, you feel like killing someone.” The packed house laughed knowingly.You will never hear banal pop tunes at a Kitka concert. For the past 35 years, this internationally recognized women's vocal ensemble has developed a massive repertoire of Eastern European folk songs, presented as a joyous reminder that musicmaking is a sacred act and a communal celebration. “These songs cast spells,” said Shira Cion, the group's current artistic director. “They are blessings. They have power.” Kitka offers them as an uplift in the darkest hours of compulsory holiday shopping at stores with sorry Pandora seeds.

The “Wintersongs” program included titles from Balkan, Slavic, Carpathian, Caucasus, and Eastern European Jewish traditions. The arrangements involved various configurations, from the full eight-voice a capella group to a number of smaller combos, including haunting diaphonic partnerships and the occasional instrumental accompaniment on violin, harmonium, and hand percussion. The fresh harmonic layers sounded contemporary, although much of the music originated from way back. These were songs of the commoners: shepherds, farmers, hunters, young lovers, tavern seekers, wayfaring strangers. The lyrics spoke to carrying on through brutal winters, grieving for lost loved ones, and finding solace in faith. The crisscrossing melodies were sobering, rivetting, as one or two drones would bolster a gang of vocal lines snaking across the register with the fluidity of latter-day Coltrane. When least expected, yelps, bird calls, and wraith-like ululations punched holes through lush harmonic weaves that seemed to levitate like bright white clouds. Always, multiple voices resounded as one, like Gabriel's trumpet howling from the highest mountaintop, summoning the wayward home. 
There were also curious combos of religious and pagan themes. “Shen Khar Venakhi,” an ancient Georgian hymn, married wine with the divine. “Ne Zurit'sja, Khlopcy,” an ecstatic Hasidic anthem, extolled the virtues of ritual vodka consumption as a pathway to God. Best, perhaps, was the grand finale, “A V Jerusalime,” described as “a Christmas morning carol,” rejoicing that “the Son of God has been born” while begging all those within earshot: “We ask you for chocolates!” Tossing candy on the stage, audience members were happy to thank Kitka with the kind of holiday gift-giving everyone can agree on.          

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