For the past dozen or so years, we have made the Washington Revels part of our Christmas tradition. We enjoy the community choir accompanied by a chore group of professional musicians from the region highlighted each year. Some years the culture and era selected is familiar to our ear: Victorian Britain, Ireland, Central Europe, Appalachian and urban USA, etc. Occasionally, they have selected less familiar winter solstice traditions from Sephardic and Islamic Spain, Nordic Scandinavia, etc. This year, the Revels took us to the Thrace, the region between the Aegean and Black Seas.
The mission of the Revels is to present authentically as possible the music, dance, and social customs of the regions and time periods they present each year. Crossing the Atlantic and the Channel to Europe may present us with carols in French, German, Spanish or Italian. But for the most part, we know the tunes and can feel a little more cultured by hearing the original lyrics. Every year, they provide an extensive program with descriptions of each piece.
Traveling this year to locations where lyrics are sung in Greek, Croatian, Turkish, Bulgarian, etc. takes us a few countries beyond what we might recognize. Furthermore, the musical traditions in these countries have been more influenced by Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures than the Hapsburg monarchy. The rhythms are not 4/4 or 3/4, but combinations that would trip up our feet. Rather than our opera and oratorio influenced rounded vowels, they sing with strongly nasal sounds and with strings of consonants that I could not enunciate.
To capture these sounds, the choirs must have practiced these unfamiliar words, timbers, and time signatures to develop proficiency for this performance. These would be difficult enough standing with a conductor and music book on stage, but many of their entrances were from different locations in the auditorium. Soloists might be at the top of the balcony, or walking up the center aisle from the stage. Drummers might be entering from the lobby or side doors, coming in on time with other drummers starting at different location. All of this created an atmospheric affect.
The costume makers and procurers had their hands full this year. While women and men wore basic white peasant blouses and lace trimmed shifts, then men billowing pants and women dark colored skirts, the ornamentation was in the aprons. Reds, golds, green adorned these in repeating and floral patterns. For the 120 or so performers on stage, none wore the same design.
In addition to the folk songs and dances of the season, the Revels often include stories, mummer’s plays, and children’s pranks. Parallel traditions from the Thrace were presented with children wishing audience members good fortune with a tap of a decorated survachka, or sneaking about as kallikantzaroi, a type of underground troll which comes out in winter. Rather than St. George Slaying the Dragon, they portrayed Jason’s adventures to find the Gold Fleece, which of course includes a dragon.
Returning to work the next week, I mentioned to a co-worker about the production, with it’s less familiar musical and cultural styles. When I began to describe the women’s colorful costumes, she cut me off and completed a layer-by-layer accounting of the look. “I had one of those when I was growing up, being Polish, you know.”