Kitka’s repertoire features music from Eastern Europe and Eurasia. (Courtesy Vincent Louis Carrella)

Kitka’s ‘Wintersongs’ address climate change

Striking vocal ensemble sounds ancient and futuristic at the same time

Opening its annual December concert series this week, Kitka, the 40-year-old Bay Area women’s vocal ensemble performing traditional and spiritual Eastern European and Eurasian music, is like no other girl group.

Its name, which means “bouquet” in Bulgarian and Macedonian, describes the singers’ bright, colorful and unique voices as well as the variety of languages from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Eurasia in which they sing.

“Our sound is distinctive in the way that it celebrates the natural, open voice, a voice that is more akin to speech production than the trained ‘bel canto’ style one hears in classical vocal and choral music,” says Shira Cion, Kitka’s executive and artistic director and one of the group’s vocalists. “The sound tends to be more embodied and bright, full of rich overtones that enable the voice to project naturally,” she adds.

This year, the local holiday “Wintersongs” tour across California — which comes to San Francisco’s Old First Church on Dec. 22 — takes on environmental themes. Subtitled “Weathering the Storm,” it kicks off a series of “Vocal Ecology” concerts slated for 2020.

“Wintersongs” — which includes songs about wind, storms, rain, snow, ice and floods as well as new arrangements of more hopeful, seasonal traditional music — is designed to inspire concertgoers to become aware of the dangers of climate change and make an effort to reverse it.

The concert also includes a dollop of creativity with the premiere of Russian composer Dmitry Garkavi’s “Sljozy Nashej Materi Zemli” (“The Tears of Our Mother Earth”), which is based on an old Russian Orthodox penitential chant.

“I thought of re-envisioning this music as a penitential chant from humanity to planet earth, and we approached a local poet-friend, Gala Yaroshevsky, and asked her if she’d consider writing the text to this music with this message in mind,” Cion says. “She wrote a beautiful poem and the result is both secular and spiritual, and deeply moving to hear with its tender urgency.”

As Kitka’s songs carry universal themes such as earth and motherhood, they become recognizable to all audiences, even if listeners don’t understand the words.

And although Kitka draws from many different vocal traditions, it’s not as difficult to pinpoint a distinct “Kitka sound” as it might seem.

What distinguishes the singers, Cion says, is that their voices and textures are mixed, rather than blended into uniformity.

Also, the origins of Kitka’s repertoire are unique and compelling: “Eastern European and Eurasian polyphony has so many striking characteristics — dense, lush, unexpected harmonies and harmonic progressions, intricate ornamentation, odd-metered rhythms, and a wide range of extended vocal techniques. These sounds have a timeless quality that sounds both ancient and futuristic at the same time,” Cion says.

IF YOU GO

Kitka’s Wintersongs

Where: Old First Church, 1751 Sacramento St., S.F.

When: 4 p.m. Dec. 22

Tickets: $10 to $40, free for children under 12

Contact: Kitka.org/events, oldfirstconcerts.org

Other select performances

Santa Cruz — 8 p.m. Dec. 6

San Rafael — 8 p.m. Dec. 7

Menlo Park — 4 p.m. Dec. 8

Oakland — 8 p.m. Dec. 13-14

Oakland — 5 p.m. Dec. 15 (Community Sing)

Woodside — 5 to 8 p.m. Dec. 18

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