Kitka is very good at what it does. The eight-woman vocal ensemble based on the West Coast specializes in music of Eastern Europe — music that shares a common aesthetic heritage despite the wide cultural differences of its people. Kitka’s program at the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room on Sunday focused, not surprisingly, on early music of the season, much of which the ensemble has recorded on several CDs.
Doing this type of music right requires not only digging out the music and tracing back its early folk and sacred origins but, much more elusively, figuring out how it was sung — what kinds of sound production, instrumental accompaniment and harmonies were used. There are sources for this kind of thing — writings, paintings and a sort of reverse engineering of modern folk styles — but it takes a lot of work. Kitka has come up with solutions that preserve the exotic while highlighting both the dramatic and the mesmerizing.
They sing with a straight, vibrato-less delivery that has the nasal qualities associated with the shape-note singing of the early American South. Melodies with narrow ranges and hypnotically repetitive structures float over dronelike harmonies. And while the same ethereal spirit that inspired Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” was evident in some of the songs from Ukraine and Georgia, the Jewish songs seemed spawned by the hora. There was the peaceful glow of “Shen Khar Venakhi,” a medieval Marian song in praise of the vineyard, sung with hypnotic reverence, and, on the other end of the emotional spectrum, the raucous energy of “Ne Zurit’sja Khlopcy,” a Hasidic barroom ode belted out in praise of vodka.
Singing all these from memory and in many different languages, Kitka moved easily from tradition to tradition, as comfortable with the shrieks and howls of joyful celebration as with the quietest meditation, offering a convincing shout-out for a repertoire many know too little about.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.