Chicago a cappella presents 'Fiesta Coral Mexicana'
"It is significant that a country as sorrowful as ours should have so many and such joyous fiestas. Their frequency, their brilliance and excitement, the enthusiasm with which we take part, all suggest that without them we would explode," wrote Mexican poet Octavio Paz. Chicago a cappella, the city's most virtuosic and innovative vocal ensemble, is happy to present "Fiesta Coral Mexicana," an authentic concert program that will celebrate the vibrant musical traditions of Mexico.
It will be coming to Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston on Sunday, Feb. 9; National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago on Saturday, Feb. 15; Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville on Friday, Feb. 21; and Pilgrim Congregational in Oak Park on Sunday, Feb. 23. The concerts will be at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sundays.
Mexican music with its distinctive rhythmic vitality attracts people from all over the world, and musicians from various countries are happy to try its dynamic and vibrant taste.
Jonathan Miller, Chicago a cappella's artistic director, undertook research in Mexico as part of a cultural exchange project and generously agreed to share with me his endless discoveries of Mexican musical gems. Many of them will shine during "Fiesta Coral Mexicana."
Q. Dear Mr. Miller, very soon Chicago a cappella is going to present its new unique concert program called Fiesta Coral Mexicana. What motivated you to prepare this particular program?
A. I was part of a cultural exchange in 2013-2014, funded by the MacArthur Foundation's International Connections Fund, where Mexican composer/conductor Jorge Córdoba came here to work with Chicago a cappella, and I went to Mexico City and Guadalajara in May 2014 to do program research. Jorge did a program for us called "Navidad en México," which is the first all-Mexican program we ever did. This new "Fiesta Coral Mexicana" is the second. This program is the product of my trip, partly because of the composers I met there and repertoire that we've found since then, and also because of the wider network of Mexican composers and arrangers that we have built from that point forward. For me personally it has been a continual sort of falling in love with the tremendous riches of Mexican culture, of course including music but also language, history and tradition.
Q. What kind of musical styles and genres are going to be presented? Have you prepared mostly Mexican traditional folk songs?
A. We have two pre-Columbian melodies, one in Mayan and one in a Nahuatl/mestizo mix. The first is arranged by prominent Mexican composer Jorge Cózatl, and the other is centuries old, written by Gaspar Fernandes, who was the maestro de capilla in Puebla, a prominent musical post in the church establishment. The rest of the program is a combination of sacred music (two Latin motets from the colonial period), folk melodies (La Llorona and Jucheti Consuelito, the latter from Michoacán), popular melodies including "Bésame Mucho" and "A la orilla de palmar," and new pieces by composers in the Cantaré Chicago residency program for Mexican composers, written for us.
Q. Will the group sing any hits?
A. Of course! "Bésame Mucho" and "A la orilla de palmar" are both standards, and we have a terrific version of "Mi ciudad" -- an ode to Mexico City -- arranged by our beloved friend Jorge Córdoba. We are also singing "Dios nunca muere," which is the unofficial state song of Oaxaca, as well as "La bikina." And then there's an encore, but I can't give that away.
Q. Are there any surprises, premieres or famous names? Is the ensemble going to introduce to its audiences new compositions written by contemporary Mexican composers?
A. There are always surprises on a Chicago a cappella concert! As for famous names, "A la orilla de palmar" was famously covered by Ana Gabriel; "Mi ciudad" was a big hit for Guadalupe Trigo; and José Galván, who has a few arrangements on our program, is a rock star in the choral world for his work with his popular a cappella group Voz en Punto. That group of six singers has become a troupe of international musical ambassadors for Mexico. I can tell you that first-hand, because I heard them in China when we were all there together for a choral folk-song festival in 2017!
Q. This concert program is going to widen the perspective of American audiences of Mexican music and its rich history and development. How can you describe the arrangements of these songs? Are they typical for your group or are there any particular characteristics and techniques that are used only in Mexico?
A. That's a great question. Mexican music has its characteristic rhythms -- or, more accurately, it draws on several dozen characteristic rhythms such as merengue or son jarocho -- and so part of the trick with a cappella versions is to make sure that the song's primary rhythmic thrust is preserved. We sometimes do this with vocal percussion, but sometimes (as in the case of "Mi ciudad") the interplay of the different voice parts creates the necessary rhythmic groove. I would also say that Chicago a cappella's singers can do pretty much anything that's written down for 10 voices, which means we can sing in 10 different voice parts -- the singers are that good. I sometimes call them "the Cirque do Soleil acrobats of the voice," because even without amplification, they can create so many different sounds and textures and feelings. Of course, the job at hand is to sing what's in the printed score, faithfully and expressively, so that the meaning and feeling comes to the fore for the audience.
Q. Will the musicians sing only in Spanish, or also in English? Or maybe in some other languages?
A. Other than the Mayan and Nahuatl texts I mentioned earlier, and the Latin Church pieces, everything else is in Spanish. "Jucheti Consuelito" includes words from the Purépecha people who lived centuries ago in what is now Jalisco and Michoacán.
Q. Who is the music director for this particular concert program and how is he related to it?
A. Benjamin Rivera is the music director. He sang with Chicago a cappella as our low bass for many years starting in 2006, after I stopped singing with the group. He is a masterful director with very wide and varied experience and terrific attention to detail of both music and text. He's a native Spanish speaker, which of course helps with the language and the musical idioms. Benjamin also prepared Chicago a cappella for the premieres of the works that were commissioned as part of our Cantaré Chicago residency program over the past few years, so he knows those pieces intimately.
Q. Would you encourage the audience members to dress in Mexican national costumes for this event?
A. Sure! Mexican culture is incredibly rich, and as my friend who lives near Guadalajara reminded me, "Mexicans use their eyes a lot" -- it is a visual culture as well as an auditory one -- so people can wear their Mexican colors con orgullo!
This dazzling concert program is meant to shine a bright light on the spectacular musical world of Mexico, a country that for centuries has been giving birth to talented and devoted musicians and composers whose legacy is difficult to overestimate.
For more information and tickets, visit www.chicagoacappella.org or call (773) 281-7820.