Twenty years ago, I discovered the intoxicatingly strange vocal music of Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares — who, despite the French name, are a renowned Bulgarian women’s choir. There’s something so powerful about these voices, something almost alien about them, too. They sing such deep notes for women, with unusual undulations. And the intervals between the notes seem unusual. At times, the harmonies are almost harsh, with a fierce quality you wouldn ‘t expect from a female choir, but it’s always beautiful, and at other times the music has a lovely, serene nature.
I was shocked on Thursday night to see a Chicago Reader listing for Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares in Chicago. I had no idea the group was coming here. And where was the choir performing? Orchestra Hall? No, sir, the venue was a Bulgarian church out on the Northwest Side, St. John of Rila Bulgarian Church. Talk about an under-the-radar concert. It was interesting just to see the inside of this church, which had a small sanctuary with an ornate altar featuring exquisite gold-tinted portraits of saints, similar in style to Russian icons. Interestingly, the church had placed smaller pictures of the same saints in front of some of these images, partially obscuring the main paintings. A number of people in the audience were conversing in Bulgarian, apparently parishioners, but I also observed a number of classical music and world music aficionados in attendance.
Conducted by Dora Hristova, the choir performed 22 pieces, including a few Christmas songs that were unfamiliar to these ears. It was a mix of religious pieces, traditional folk songs and compositions written for the choir. At times, the entire chorus of about 20 women sang. Other pieces featured duos, trios and quartets of singers. One male singer, Daniel Spassov, joined the choir for a few pieces. The women in the choir covered the entire age spectrum, with most of them appearing to be middle-aged and a few of them elderly.
The name of the group, which translates as “The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices,” is very apt, because it is mysterious how these women make such sounds. According to the concert program, they use a “unique vocal technique to produce the sound in the larynx, which then resonates in the chest.” I noticed that the singers seldom opened their mouths very wide. However they do it, it’s astonishing.