- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

The din surrounding the contemporary Finnish folkers of Varttina is mighty these days. Their 10th and latest studio album, “Miero,” was released a year ago by Peter Gabriel’s Real World label to much acclaim, and the group is fresh off co-composing the music for the big-budget stage adaptation of “Lord of the Rings,” which premiered in Toronto last February and is scheduled for a London debut later this year.

Wednesday night at the half-full Birchmere, however, the crowd sat quietly and let the band make all the noise.

What began in 1983 as a troupe of 21 youngsters seeking to revive traditional songs from the eastern part of Finland has become the trio of Susan Aho, Mari Kaasinen and Johanna Virtanen — who weave their close vocal harmonies like a musical braid that’s intertwined with the acoustic instrumentation provided by six musicians.

Though Varttina writes original material and infuses songs with a modern energy, it remains undeniably linked to its homeland’s cultural past through its use of ancient poetry, dress and dialect, among other elements. The band’s unique presentation has kept it atop various world-music charts and brought it performing gigs such as the illustrious WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festival, an annual nomadic performance showcase.

For its attentive Birchmere audience, Varttina performed an hourlong set that ranged from stirring to slithering (literally) and from audacious to a cappella — all exemplifying the group’s propensity to use voice as a rhythmic instrument and creating rich layers of polyphonic melody. At times, one singer would sketch out a vocal bass line with low, deliberate notes, while the other two flitted around higher registers like birds at play. At other moments, the women spit out words in rapid-fire unison.

Meanwhile, Varttina’s instrumental backdrop of various stringed instruments — coupled with soprano sax, an accordion and fiddle that sometimes evoked a Celtic, Russian or even Middle Eastern folk-music feel — kept pace as the drums maintained a relatively modern, rock-style backbeat.

Varttina’s music may not be accessible instantly to everyone. It is, after all, performed in a Finnish dialect called Karelian and is sometimes oddly dissonant. Yet the singers’ theatrics provided an entree into the underlying themes and added extra entertainment value. The flaxen-tressed women in long skirts were as bewitching as modern-day sorceresses, using splayed fingers and outstretched arms to conjure spells and procure articles of clothing for the final number from those in the front row willing to play along.

The polite ticket holders weren’t always easy to get a rise out of. Varttina’s jokes, banter and invitations to dance often were met with the kind of silence that conjures up thoughts of crickets. However, the crowd’s quiet admiration became audible when the band finally retired from the stage and applause rained like a monsoon, forcing the musicians back for two encores.

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