Short, pithy response:
This will be a rambling entry - it's hard to assemble my thoughts in a coherent way, because so many aspects of this performance were so foreign to me.
First and foremost is their vocal production. It is totally different from anything I have learned, and it was fascinating to watch and listen to as someone coming from a different vocal tradition. It's a bright, nasal, cutting sound, but also very free, not at all tense, and very agile. Once again I refer you to the sound clips on their website.
Then there's the compositions. Although they are deeply rooted in folk tradition, these arrangements are really complex, and don't sound like simple folk songs to me. The song that opened the second half, "Mehmetyo," was something that I wish all my composer friends could have heard - it used not just the whoops and other sounds from the folk tradition but also some really inventive compositional techniques. Since I don't know any of the folk songs or the folk tradition that their music is coming from, I really couldn't figure out the roles of the composers and their relationship to the traditional folk music.
Then, of course, there's the text - I don't speak Bulgarian, and while the program provided song titles, that was about it.
But none of these questions interfered with my very great enjoyment - rather, they enhanced it. These women are really experienced performers - they were very comfortable on stage. They had great performance energy - they were comfortable looking at each other and singing to each other and making lots of eye contact with each other, but most of the time their faces and energy were directed outwards. (I was watching and learning for the next time I perform!) I also liked the clothing - the first half they were all in a variety of traditional dress, and the second half they had these gorgeous black dresses with colored strips.
They also really mixed up their ensembles. Each half began and ended with several songs with the entire chorus, but in the middle they had small ensemble arrangments for anywhere from 2-6 singers. And for these they had two male singers as well, who joined various combinations about four times during the concerts. The tenor, Daniel Spassov, had a voice which skipped right on by "pretty" and landed squarely in "dreamy." It will be worth seeing if he is on any of their albums. There were numerous solos by various of the women, of course, ranging from duets (one great one was called "The Dearest Relatives" and I had no trouble understanding that one! - it was just a bit snarky) to solos with the whole chorus behind them. Of the latter, I particularly enjoyed Mariya Leshkova's solo on "Pigeons are Cooing."
The final thing that really struck me, and I still can't quite figure out why, was that it was so novel and powerful to see so many middle-aged and older women on stage. The age range of the women ran the gamut, but most of them were at least middle-aged, and some were past that. And for some reason, this was really striking. I can't figure out why I feel like I never see this, because obviously I do - after all, I saw the Back Bay Chorale just last night, and their singers have an equally wide age range. Maybe it was that there were (usually) only women on stage. Maybe it is that they are not amateurs, but experts - possibly the best in the world at singing this kind of music. Thoughts on this are welcome - all I can say is that it was both fresh and refreshing, not to mention very powerful and inspiring, to hear such amazing vocal prowess coming from mature, wrinkled, real faces. (It's also possible I've just been watching too many Hollywood movies lately - that can skew your perspective!)
The audience seemed to be largely Bulgarian - I was surprised that the choral musicians of Boston were not out in droves. I was scared this concert would sell out before I bought tickets on Tuesday, but it didn't even come close. Your loss! Keep reading this blog, and I'll let you know the next time they're in town.