Since its debut in 1993, the nine-member Chicago a Cappella has earned a reputation as a versatile, knowledgeable interpreter of music for unaccompanied chorus, with a repertoire ranging from sacred music of the Renaissance to a 1995 commission called “Birth of Soul, Part I.” The ensemble’s intellectually curious artistic director (and bass), Jonathan Miller, has been the catalyst behind some of its more daring programs, including an evening devoted to 16th-century Italian composer Giovanni Palestrina and another inspired by the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. The seed for the current program was planted two years ago, when Miller heard a visiting Swedish chorus perform arrangements of Scandinavian folk songs. Like many traditional tunes, they often praise the abundance and beauty of the homeland–the midnight sun, dark forests, and deep, clear lakes–or even imitate natural sounds like birdcalls and rippling water. However, since Scandinavian vocal music evolved in relative isolation until the mid-20th century, its melodies sometimes sound more like Tibetan chants than anything from Europe. For these concerts Miller has fashioned an “a cappella story opera” titled The Nordic Wolf and the Water of Life, with narration written and delivered by storyteller Megan Wells. The plot draws on several different versions of the ancient Firebird saga, which also inspired the Stravinsky ballet, and follows a young prince who must perform a series of feats–retrieve a sword, woo a princess, fight a monster–to bring back a healing water for his sick father. The 17 songs (11 by modern Scandinavian composers, including originals and arrangements of traditional material, and 6 by Miller) act as a kind of sound track to the spoken story, each evoking a particular scene or mood. The narration will be in English, but most of the tunes will be sung in their original languages–testimony to the extraordinary lengths to which this chorus will go to deliver an authentic, edifying performance. Friday, March 9, 8 PM, Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut; Saturday, March 10, 7:30 PM, Unity Temple, 875 Lake, Oak Park; and Sunday, March 11, 4 PM, First Congregational Church, 1445 Hinman, Evanston; 773-755-1628 or 800-746-4969.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ed Lausch.