Jonathan’s Mexico Trip - Part 5

Jun 1, 2014

As part of our Mexican cultural exchange project, founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller is traveling to Mexico to conduct musical research, visit archives, and meet and confer with choral directors and composers. Enjoy his travelogue!

May 21, 2014 – Day 5

This was a day that made me laugh. Jorge had been telling me for days that I needed to get myself over to the Museo Nacional de Antropología, the top museum in town and the Smithsonian of Mexico, with unique and fabulous exhibits about ancient pre-Columbian societies. So I decided that it was more important to absorb that for a few hours than to keep spinning and transcribing tunes at the Fonoteca.

Here is the story of Los Tres Alejandros: After breakfast (the coffee here is nice and strong, and I liked it with “crema natural” which is heavy cream that stands up well to the java), I took my backpack and went outside the hotel to the cab stand. I asked the guy who flags down cabs If Alejandro was working today. He gave me the deer-in-the-headlights look and said “Cual Alejandro?” (Which Alejandro?) I had his business card, so I told him the last name. “Oh, no, caballero, he’s not here now, he’s somewhere else. This driver can take you to the museum.” So I asked this driver his name, and it was Alejandro. That made me laugh. Alejandro #2 had a huge car, a Honda Pilot or something like that, the biggest vehicle I’d been in while in Mexico City. (Jorge drives a little VW Lupo, like a Mini Cooper, great for the tiny streets and tinier parking places they have here.) This Alejandro was even more knowledgeable than the first Alejandro. He told me which exhibit halls to see, and they were the same ones Jorge had recommended, so that was reassuring. I had originally thought I’d be at the Museo from 10 to 11:30 and then head to the Fonoteca. After talking to Alejandro #2, I realized that was a silly plan, and I asked him to pick me up there at noon. He thought that was a better idea, so I wouldn’t be so rushed. We agreed on that plan.

The Museo de Antropología is amazing. Here is the outside:

And a dedication:

There’s a cool column in the middle of the great courtyard, once you go inside. It looks like it is modern, inspired by the centuries of Mayan, Aztec, and other cultures here.

Tenochtitlan was the Aztec name for Mexico City. It was the seat of the Aztec empire. This is the hall that was the most important one for me to see, and it blew me away. This is the stuff about the earliest civilizations here.

Just a few of the things I saw:

Then to the next hall, about the next stage of society, with more refined arts and more well-defined social classes and functions of people:

I thought this map was cool:

The art is really beautiful.

Being a dog lover, I was charmed by these:

Now to the Mayan hall. I had seen several Mayan ruins when my wife Sandy and I visited the areas around Cancun, several years ago, including the amazing Ek Balam ruins northest of Chichen Itza. What is cool about this museum is that they have some of the best artifacts from the entire Mayan landscape, and they give nice context to the whole sweep of Mayan history.

Here’s a map of Mayan temple sites:

Truly incredible stuff.

This was big!

I was touched by the delicacy and feeling in this piece:

Here is a manuscript, beautifully rendered, with lovely colors: the Egyptians had nothing on these guys. Having been a mathematician earlier in life, I also was impressed that the Mayans developed the concept of zero long before the Arab scholars did.

They could do small figures too:

Okay, now for the conclusion of the taxi driver story.

I went downstairs at noon, as we had arranged. I didn’t see Alejandro #2’s big car. I stood there for a few minutes, and then another cab driver got out of his cab and asked me if I wanted a ride. I waved him off, saying I had my own cab. Then he said “Señor Miller, going to the Fonoteca?” I said yes, that was me. He explained that he worked with Alejandro, who was busy and had sent him over to get me. I asked this driver for his name, and he replied “Alejandro.” That made me laugh harder than ever! Turns out that Alejandro #3 is married to the sister of Alejandro #2, or something like that. I joked that there should be a law in Mexico City that only guys named Alejandro get to drive cabs. He said it was sort of a family affair, that there were a lot of drivers in his clan. Or maybe it was Alejandro #1 who told me that the day before… I’m a little short on sleep. Anyway, very funny.

The Fonoteca today was about the same as before, more listening. I found one other song that I wanted to transcribe. After spending about an hour and a half there, I was to meet Jorge at the Coyoacán metro station to go to our next things. Laura at the Fonoteca told me it would take about 20 minutes to walk there. It was a very busy street, and it reminded me of a walk down a busy, congested, bus-packed street that I’ve had in many other cities before: London, Puerto Vallarta, Jerusalem, you name it. One thing was funny, a bus called “Pullman de Chiapas,” which I guessed was the most comfortable, first-class bus that you can take from D.F. to Chiapas.

After the promised 20 minutes, with help from a man on the street, I found the Starbucks that Jorge had said I’d find by the Metro station, and I was happy to order my first-ever Starbucks drink in Spanish. And how nice to be someplace with Wi-fi other than my hotel! Jorge ended up running about half an hour late, so I got cash at an ATM, which everyone says is the best way to do that in Mexico. When he picked me up, we parked at this very nice gated space, which happened to be inside the headquarters of the Society of Mexican Composers, their version of ASCAP or BMI.

Clearly the pop writers are making good money, because this place was to die for. The grounds were beautiful, and the main building was spectacular, having won many awards for architecture.

Jorge showed me the performance space, which is very expensive to rent but comes with a tech crew and sound engineers and video guys.

Then we walked a few blocks, past the Cineteca, a wonderful resource for films of all kinds, which includes a year-around outdoor movie screen, where you can see movies for free.

You can just pick up a woven fiber mat, big enough for two people, plunk it on the grass, and watch a movie. (We were there in the day, and several young couples were making out these mats, reading, cuddling, making out, etc.)

North of there a bit was the headquarters of the national radio programming organization. Jorge does a monthly radio show about Mexican classical music. Since he’s going to be away at an international choral festival for his August show, he taped two of them now, so one can run while he’s away.

They are 30-minute segments. The music was beautiful, though I was so tired I mostly took a nap during the hour and a half or so that he was taping.

Our next stop was the National Music School again. On the way there, we passed this fabulous car-repair shop that specializes in vintage cars. This was the body of a classic VW Beetle.

Then to the School, where I got to sit in on a rehearsal by Patricia Morales, with her kids’ choir, which was very good, working on (of course) a piece by Jorge. The rest of the evening was about two hours in rehearsal with Jorge’s professional women’s sextet, Tumben Paax, which was working on music for a kids’ program coming up. Jorge did a setting of a Mexican song that is sort of like “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” – hilarious, especially since the women have to make animal noises (fly, mosquito, snake, dog, cat, etc.) while they navigate all of the verses. I learned that Mexican dogs say “wow” instead of “woof” or “bow wow.” Since I say “wow” a lot, I hope that my Mexican friends do not think I am a dog.

Next in the rehearsal – most of the rehearsal – was a stunningly beautiful piece by a composition student, and Tumben Paax is performing it this weekend at the student’s graduation recital. His name is Jean Angelus Richard Vazquez. He’s 33 years old and played piano for many years before going back to school in composition. He got into Vocalessence’s program called “Cantaré” in the Twin Cities, a prestigious crucible of sorts for Mexican composers, which includes commissions, working with public schools, and so on. I loved the piece, and I told Jean to let me know when he’s in Minneapolis this fall, so that perhaps he can zip down to Chicago to hear CAC sing. Really gorgeous music that he wrote!

One of the lucky strokes at the National Music School is that it has a teeny sheet-music store right there, for selling exercise books, piano repertoire, and so on – the sorts of things that music students need.
They also happened to have about a dozen choral scores, most of them a cappella, so I snapped up them up. Jorge said most of the repertoire was very good. They are published by the School, which I was happy to support with a purchase.

That was my sojourn in Mexico City. What a great experience.

Jonathan’s Mexico Trip - Part 4

Jun 1, 2014

As part of our Mexican cultural exchange project, founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller is traveling to Mexico to conduct musical research, visit archives, and meet and confer with choral directors and composers. Enjoy his travelogue!

May 20, 2014 – Day 4

I’ll begin at the end of the day and work my way backwards.  A late dinner with Jorge (10:30pm start time) after a long day. He made me laugh so hard, because at dinner he did a spoof of the accents of all the different main regions of Mexico. Monterrey has a very forward, earnest, Midwestern-sounding accent. Mérida (capital of Yucatan state) is more clipped, almost staccato. One of the other states is more sing-songy, almost like Swedish. Veracruz is softer and more muffled, much like Cuban dialect. The norteños are different too, and it seems like the Jalisco/Michoacán highlands are kind of neutral. People here in D.F. (Mexico City) talk quickly and sometimes drop consonants a bit. I guess the talking-fast part is like New York City. I should get him to do this for a YouTube video or something…. It was so funny.

Before dinner we stopped at the apartment of a lovely elder gentleman, Juan Manuel Lara, who is the Mexico City area’s expert about Mexican Renaissance choral music. He was conducting a rehearsal of his very good chamber choir, Melos Gloriae. Jorge says it’s the only group in town where a musicologist is in charge of the singing, and they really know their stuff. It was fun because, after Jorge told them (much more quickly in Spanish than I could have done) about my visit, they invited me to join them in singing! They just handed me a binder and I joined the other two basses. We sang for 15-20 minutes, and the time just flew. I plugged right back into Renaissance Brain as if I were back in His Majestie’s Clerkes or in a sight-reading gig at St. Peter’s in the Loop with Michael Thompson. In fact, these guys under Juan Manuel’s leadership had a wonderful, fluid, Spanish-inflected way of doing plainchant, the closest I’ve experienced to Michael’s great chant direction. We were working on music by Capilla, one of the “Rinascimiento” composers that Melos Gloriae champions. At the end of the reading session, one of the basses said to me, “Está contratado!” (You’re hired!)  It was a nice compliment. I was pleased that my breath worked as well as it did at 7000+ feet. I must be adjusting to the altitude a bit. Juan Manuel continued the custom of great hospitality by giving me a CD of his group’s work with Hernando Franco’s masses, which of course incurred yet another obligation to mail more CDs to Mexican colleagues when I get home.

Before that, we were at the music department of the big state university (UNAM), where I did a radio entrevista (interview) with Ana Patricia (Paty) Carbajal, one of the movers and shakers on the choral scene here, who has a monthly radio program called Musica Encantada, all about choral music. We went into a little conference room and she just taped me on her little voice recorder right then and there. I was pleased since I did 95% of it talking Spanish, which was good since I got to do most of the talking, asking Jorge to help me translate something I was trying to say when it was needed. Paty said that it was best for me to try talking Spanish, even if I butchered a few things, since the audience would really appreciate my trying. I have certainly found that to be the case. It was fun. Jorge told me that it will be broadcast on the 2nd Wednesday in June (that’s the 11th) at 7pm, and if you go to and click on “Opus,” there will be a link to the broadcast.

Here are a few pictures of the music school – our schedules got a little messed up, and Jorge was able to catch up with several faculty members he knows, so I had a little time to take some snaps.

I had the privilege to meet the principal of the whole school, a lovely gentleman with a big heart. Next to his door is the vision statement for the school:

Jorge told him about our project and about the “Navidad” concert we did together here. The principal was very engaged. The topic came up about having CAC come and be a resource for the students and faculty in some way, and there were good feelings all around.

One more view: seeing this guitar reminds me that Jorge pointed out a guy with a theorbo (like a bass lute) in the hall. I hadn’t seen a theorbo in years.

Before going to the university, I was wrapping up my day at the Fonoteca. What a productive day I had there! To get there, Jorge advised me to just use the hotel’s cadre of cabs; they cost more, but they are reliable and good tour guides. I had a nice cab driver named Alejandro, and we had a friendly conversation on the way to the Fonoteca. He had given me his card so I could call him to take me from the Fonoteca to the National Music School to see Paty later in the day, but we didn’t have to do that since the schedule allowed Jorge to pick me up. (That was an interesting experience, trying to call Alejandro to cancel the second trip, only to find that for some weird reason my mobile couldn’t call his mobile. I punted and called the hotel, where a nice lady offered to call Alejandro directly and tell him, and then she called me back to confirm. Hooray for a little Spanish!)

The Fonoteca is incredible. I listened pretty much completely to two field recording albums of music from Michoacán. There was a song that grabbed me, called “Otro ratito nomás,” which translates to something like “Just a little teeny bit more time,” about a relationship where the guy is really missing the girl. Quite a charming text, and Jorge helped me figure out what the guy was saying…. Field recordings are not known for their crisp sound quality or exciting diction. I spent about three hours total working on that one song, to write down the melody, the words, and the instrumental “breaks” so that I can see if it’s possible to come up with a choral edition of the piece. It has great energy.
Here’s a nice little park on Calle Francisco Sosa, just a few blocks from the Fonoteca. There was an elderly couple sitting on a bench, very close to one another; the gentleman was playing the guitar, and the lady was singing a lovely lament, sounding something like a flamenco tune. They were not playing for money, rather just for one another. It was charming, and I didn’t want to invade their privacy by taking a picture, so we’ll settle for this. (The couple was just to the left of this photo.)

This is a sort of community arts center, with art studios and classrooms and a nice little café in a courtyard. I stopped there for a cappuccino on the way back from downtown Coyoacán back to the Fonoteca.

Here’s the inside:

Walking back to the Fonoteca, I found this sweet street sign:

And a little bougainvillea to brighten the afternoon:

Here are some photos of the outdoor signage for the Fonoteca:

That’s all the news that’s fit to print for today!

Jonathan’s Mexico Trip - Part 3

May 24, 2014

As part of our Mexican cultural exchange project, founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller is traveling to Mexico to conduct musical research, visit archives, and meet and confer with choral directors and composers. Enjoy his travelogue!

May 19 – Day 3

Another memorable day. Jorge picked me up at the hotel and took me to the headquarters of the Sistema Nacional de Fomento Musical (the National System for the Promotion of Music), where I met Alejandro, the director, who conducts three children’s choirs, and – according to Jorge—is a tireless advocate to the government (which funds the Sistema) for the need to have more and more young people involved in music across Mexico. The Sistema’s choral jurisdiction covers a thousand choirs all around the country – very impressive – including choirs that operate all year ‘round as well as festival and holiday choirs, etc. Alejandro was very cordial and took me and Jorge upstairs to the last 20 minutes or so of a rehearsal with a woman who was very impressive, working with a truly excellent group of graduate students (Jorge said the average age was about 26 or 27). The group were 1 2 in number.  They were singing a cycle with piano of songs by Guastavino, the important composer from Argentina. Jorge knew the cycle well and was bobbing his head and doing a little gentle conducting his own chair off to the side…. Just being a conductor!

After we finished the rehearsal, I complimented the conductor on her work, and she answered in an accent that reminded me of our wonderful board member, Maria Suarez, with whom I spoke some Spanish at our Gala a few days ago. Turns out this talented conductor was not only Cuban;  her name is Digna Guerra, and she is one of the most esteemed choral conductors in the world!  She proudly told me that her group from Cuba, Entre Voces, won first prize overall (not just in her category) at the very difficult German competition in Marktoberdorf.  This is a prestigious international competition, and walking away with top honors is really something. She is getting invitations all over the world, and her group is touring the East Coast in 2015. Anyway, once I was duly impressed with Digna, she was very kind and immediately invited me and Chicago a cappella to come to Cuba!  That is easier said than done, but both Digna and Jorge said it is easier in recent years than it had been.  A new project to work on …. Very exciting. These conductors are very warm people.

The four of us then went upstairs to the office area, where we drank coffee and talked about all sorts of things. Alejandro kindly gave me copies of several anthologies of choral music for children that the Sistema has published;  here’s the cover of one of them.

We joked about how singers sometimes don’t watch conductors. Imagine! I guess every conductor complains about that. Turns out that Digna was finishing a 2-year stint as visiting choral professor at the Sistema, and she’s headed back to Havana on Monday – just enough time to Jorge to run a copy of “Bound for Glory” over to her and to Alejandro later this week.

Next thing was for me and Jorge to head over to a part of town where he wanted to show me a huge indoor market that was full of about 100 different tiny stands selling produce, cheese, spices, witchcraft supplies (really – this is alive and well, witness the healing outside the cathedral yesterday – Jorge called them “brujas blancas,” or white witches), meat, flowers, you name it.  This one was about 4 times the footprint of the one from the first night in Plaza Garibaldi, and two stories high.  Here I am with about 20 kinds of chiles, and Jorge says there about four times as many chiles in existence in Mexico. As usual, there is so much to see, and while it’s exhilarating, I keep in mind that we are just scratching the surface in this phenomenal city.

Jorge took me upstairs to a tiny shop where the two of us feasted for the whopping total of 8 dollars, and that was for both of us: a three-course meal of soup (mushrooms, huge things that are made when corn soaked in water is allowed to ferment – delicious), a broccoli version of a chile relleno, and a mushroom taco.  Amazing.  What the whole building reminded me of was a bigger Mexican version of the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. What fun. Jorge goes there a lot, so he introduced me to some of his vendor friends, including a sweet woman at the fish counter whose mom was born at Resurrection Hospital on the northwest side of Chicago. I said, “El mundo está muy pequena” (the world is very small), and she agreed.
Next was a visit to the motherlode of recorded sound, the Fonoteca Nacional. Oh my stars, is this place amazing. First, it’s an oasis of quiet in the upscale artsy neighborhood of Coyoacán (= the place of the coyotes in Nahuatl), and the grounds are beautiful.

The Fonoteca is six years old, a state-of-the-art high-tech archive with a mission to preserve, catalogue, and make available the entire history of recorded sounds in Mexico, from musical records to radio broadcasts and field recordings etc. It reminds of me of Smithsonian Folkways. Amazing. The lovely young man who helped us was Sergio Sandoval. He gave us a tour of the archival labs – very cool tools for cleaning old LPs and reel-to-reel tapes. Here’s the machine for de-gunking old LPs. The needle is not for playback – it’s for getting old dust and debris out of the grooves.

 – and then of the “stacks” of old tapes and LPs (here’s Sergio).

Sergio then showed us the upstairs labs, where technicians and specialists create digitized copies of everything, listen carefully to make sure the digitized versions are clean-sounding, and work with subject matter experts to make sure things are catalogued properly and then backed up in a triple-redundant fail-over storage network. Here’s one such workstation.

When Jorge asked if they will do any cloud storage, Sergio replied “No, keep in mind that this is our national heritage here… we’re not giving anyone else this stuff.” But at least the third set of backups are stored offsite – very smart.  
Sergio then took me and Jorge to another building that is more for the public, the “Audioteca Octavio Paz,” named after the famous poet, and located in what was Paz’s residence, a huge and elegant building. A young woman named Laura offered to help, and we decided that I’ll go back first thing tomorrow morning and start listening to stuff. Jorge has been raving about this ever since we started working together three years ago. It’s a dream come true for me to actually get to the Fonoteca. Not many people know about it, even in Mexico. It was also cool because Sergio speaks Spanish more slowly and precisely than many people I’ve met here, and I was able to track a gratifying amount of what he was saying.
After an hour or two walking around Coyoacán and talking with an organillo player – a street musician with a hand cranked pipe organ that holds little piano rolls of eight tunes, all Mexican traditional songs – we had a quick bite at a taco stand and looked at a few cafés that had interesting interior design.

Jorge decided to get extra close to one of the decorations.  I couldn’t talk him out of it.

Then we headed over to the National Music School, where Jorge and I attended a rehearsal of “Staccato,” a ten-voice group of college students who are not music majors but pursuing other fields of study. I was really impressed with the quality of the ensemble, especially since these people are only doing music as an avocation. The director, Marco Ugalde, picks great repertoire for them; his favorite is contemporary repertoire from all over the world. Tonight he led them first in “Daemon Irrepit Calidus,” the famous piece by the Hungarian György Orbán – a piece for which Chicago a cappella recorded the Hinshaw Music demo about a decade ago. I was pleasantly surprised when Marco asked me if I wanted a whack at leading the kids in “Daemon,” so I did, and I think they liked what I did with the piece, emphasizing mostly things about articulation, bringing out the marcato and staccato sections. They also sang as a piece by the Mexican Jorge Cózatl, “El Cascabel,” and a piece written for a competition of new songs about New Mexico, which Jorge Córdoba won a few years ago with a cool piece called “Mi Ciudad.” It was fun to watch Jorge lead the group in his piece, which has very complex rhythms. A great day all around.

Jonathan’s Mexico Trip - Part 2

May 22, 2014

As part of our Mexican cultural exchange project, founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller is traveling to Mexico to conduct musical research, visit archives, and meet and confer with choral directors and composers. Enjoy his travelogue!

May 18 – Day 2

Not much time to write, as we have been so busy today! I will let the pictures tell the story, mostly. We hit the cathedral, and while walking past I got my first sighting of an organ grinder, who kindly let me hold the crank while Jorge took a picture.

(1) We visited the Templo Mayor, an archaeological museum that excavated the site of the former Aztec temple, literally a block away from the Cathedral. This was amazing.

 (2) We went to the zocalo,the huge public square, and watched hundreds of Mayan/Aztec-inspired dancers and drummers who literally did their thing for hours.

Here’s Jorge with a big drum that someone was using.

 (3) We had lunch at a rooftop restaurant that had a great view of the zocalo and the cathedral.

(4) We took the cathedral tower and bell tour, the highlight of which was the ringing of the two huge bells, one in each tower. After three initial slow bell rings, the tour guide flew through fifty “gongs” of the huge bell.  Turns out that the number 50 is important in Eastertide. Then he did the same thing in Tower #2.  The cathedral is awesome.

(5) We walked to the Museum de Bellas Artes and saw a cool exhibit about the history of male nudes. The exhibit was quite popular and very well done. (6) Jorge took me to the Palacio de las Bellas Artes, the big performing-arts venue that includes the home of the Ballet Folklórico de México, one of the crown jewels of the arts scene here. I bought some CDs of traditional Mexican melodies in the gift shop, as well as some whimsical postcards of dressed-up skeletons, riffing on the ever-popular motif of the Day of Dead.  There’s one that looks like a spoof of American Gothic!

My Spanish is getting better, just being here. Late in the day, I told Jorge that I need a break… my brain was just hitting the wall of not being able to absorb more in this relatively new language (for me). So we switched to mostly English, and when I felt like I could handle it, I switched back to Spanish again. I am able to express about 60% of what I want to say in Spanish, which feels pretty good. The part that is harder is keeping up with people, though if I ask them to slow down I can catch a lot more of it. Mexicans talk more quickly than Cubans, for example.

Jonathan’s Mexico Trip - Part 1

May 20, 2014

As part of our Mexican cultural exchange project, founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller is traveling to Mexico to conduct musical research, visit archives, and meet and confer with choral directors and composers. Enjoy his travelogue!

May 17 – Day 1

Traveling down here was relatively easy. I got to Atlanta on time, walked on the lower level to stretch my legs between terminals, and boarded the flight to Mexico City.  I talked a bit at the end of the flight with my seatmate, who is from Tampico and has an apartment in Mexico City. His name was Victor Vasquez. He complimented me on my Spanish, and right after that I had to ask him to slow down his talking!

Here’s the view on the approach to Mexico City. I had heard that it was in the mountains, but I didn’t understand how the city really IS in the mountains – at least parts are, of this sprawling area of 22 million people.

Upon going through immigration and getting to baggage claim, I started my first-ever texting in Spanish. I was a little nervous that the AT&T roaming plan would somehow not work, and that my text to Jorge’s cell phone would not get to him. [Composer/conductor Jorge Córdoba is Jonathan's host in Mexico City.]  But in a few minutes, there was a reply:   “Cuantas maletas traen?” (How many bags are you carrying?).  We went back and forth a few times. Then after clearing customs, I headed toward door 4. The problem was that door 4 was just taxis, and Jorge kept saying he was at door 5, which I couldn’t see. So I asked someone who said “está arriba” (it’s up), and pointed to a set of stairs. All the while I had about ten 30-second phone calls with Jorge to figure out where he was. I schlepped my suitcase up the stairs, walked over to door 5, and there was Jorge. Best thing to happen to me so far today!

It was a short drive to the hotel, maybe 15-20 minutes. We talked mostly Spanish and I followed most of what Jorge was saying. I was asking him if he could, at the outset, help me understand the differences between some of the main styles of Mexican music – mariachi and norteño in particular. He talked about how those have been around a long time, especially mariachi. He kept emphasizing how important it is to listen to the early recordings in the Fonoteca (the national archive of recorded sound – more on that later), which were created in an era before radio homogenized so many styles. It reminds me of what people say about hybridized wheat or tomatoes;  the heirloom seeds and grains and vegetables have a different quality from the overproduced, too-much-always-the-same stuff.

Then we went to dinner at the La Fonda El Refugio, a sweet place. We started with squash-blossom soup, which was yummy, then guacamole (you simply can’t get avocados that fresh in Chicago) and a green salsa for our chips, which Jorge said was rather tame – “para los niños.” I joked with the waiter that I was just a kid. Jorge then asked the waiter for some hotter salsa. I took a bite and said, “Ahora soy un HOMBRE mexicano!” (Now I am a Mexican MAN!) It’s fun to be able to be a little funny in a new language. Jorge then told me how funny it was on the day when he realized that “Who cares?” and “Hookers” almost sound the same in English, at least when you use Mexican pronunciation of English. 


he highlight of the evening, however, was about three hours at Plaza Garibaldi. I can say with confidence that I have never experienced anything like this. It is the place where literally dozens of mariachi bands descend on this one square and play and play and play, all doing different songs at different times and often in different keys, all loud, taking as many requests as they can to make money.  I had read about it in my guidebook, but nothing prepared me for the total sensory onslaught. Jorge said, “You remember Charles Ives?” I cracked up, because Ives was the guy who would write symphonies where one part of the orchestra is playing in one key and the other is playing in another key and at a different tempo. This was just like that, except there were 6 or 7 different bands going at once, often with different sets of instruments according to the different styles. In addition to straight mariachi, there were a bunch of norteño bands, which have upright bass (played pizzicato “siempre,” Jorge pointed out – never a bow) and a harp.  Mariachi traditionally has guitar, vihuela, guitarrone, 4 to 6 violins, 2 trumpets, and singers, some of which are also playing instruments. Son jarocho from Veracruz has something else. All different.  The amazing thing was how many people knew and asked for songs, how many people sang along, and then simply how many bands there were, all vying for a piece of the action. On the same plaza is built the Museum of Mezcal and Tequila (!), and in the little gift shop I bought a $5.00 vial of “Oro de Oaxaca” and a CD of traditional melodies from Michoacán, which was a real find since (1) Jorge said they were good, traditional tunes and (2) I wasn’t able to make it Michoacán on this trip, and so many Chicago-area Mexicans are from Michoacán. 

Here’s another band, with their own brand of costume:

Jorge and I strolled down an open-air food market (pozole, tacos, goat meat, you name it).

… and then went over to the “main stage” which was a crowded, noisy bar filled with more mariachi bands, I think 3 of them.  Jorge said this was where the better bands played, and you could tell them a song you wanted and they would tell you how much it cost.

Jorge listened to the 3 bands walking around and decided that one was worth plunking a little money down to hear. He had a special song in mind, “Bonito es mi Tierra” or something like that. It cost me 120 pesos, just under ten dollars, to hear that song. I had thought I caught it on my camera, but it didn’t happen. No matter – the sound was unbelievable. I’ll never forget it.   

Then we headed back to the taxi stand and bought roasted  pumpkin seeds from the lady who had a wok sort of thing in the middle of her stall as well as 4 different sizes and shapes of pepitas.

Anima-Young Singers of Greater Chicago and Board Member Bill Flowers honored at Swing! Gala Event

Apr 28, 2014


Serving the community since 1964, Anima (formerly the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus) is widely recognized for its musical excellence, innovative and effective educational philosophy, and outreach programs that bring rich educational and cultural opportunities to children who would not otherwise have such experiences. As one of the nation’s leading community youth choruses, Anima has been an artistic and educational model across North America for decades.

Founded as a park district program, the Chorus quickly established strong ties with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra because of the professional level of its training. By the early 1970’s, it had expanded to reach children from dozens of Chicagoland communities. It grew to international prominence under the musical directorship of Dr. Doreen Rao, and the group has performed frequently with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Grant Park Orchestra, and Lyric Opera. It has participated in four Grammy Award-winning recordings and has toured extensively on six continents.

Nationally recognized as a leader in the field of youth chorus directors, Emily Ellsworth has served as Anima’s Artistic Director since 1996. She also serves as Lecturer in Choral Conducting at Northwestern University, where she conducts the University Singers. Her work with Anima received the 2009 Dale Warland Singers Commissioning Award, given by Chorus America and the American Composers Forum, as well as Chorus America’s once-in-an-organizational-lifetime 2008 Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence. In frequent demand as guest clinician/conductor throughout the U.S., she has served on the music panel for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. and is the advisor of Boosey & Hawkes’ Opera Workshop series. We are thrilled to honor Anima for its tremendous contributions to Chicago’s choral community for 50 years, with special recognition of Emily Ellsworth’s brilliant artistic leadership.


A CPA with more than thirty years of experience in public accounting, industry and nonprofit organizations, Bill Flowers serves as Finance Manager & Secretary for the not-for-profit classical recording label Cedille Chicago. Bill joined Chicago a cappella’s Board of Directors in 2003. He is also a member of the Illinois CPA Society and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, where he has served as a Vice President of the Board of Directors and member of Council, respectively. He is a member of the Founders’ Council of the CPA Endowment Fund of Illinois. Bill and his wife Jeanetta are both Chicago natives and reside in Waukegan.

During his tenure, Bill has served as Chicago a cappella’s Board President, Vice-President, and Treasurer, as well as chair of the Finance Committee. With his keen financial expertise and nonprofit experience he has provided invaluable leadership for over a decade as the organization has undergone tremendous growth. With unflagging enthusiasm for the ensemble’s music-making, Bill has attended virtually every performance for more than fifteen years. His welcoming personality and warmth have become the personality of Chicago a cappella itself. We are pleased to honor him as our 2014 Friend of the Year.

A Tribute to Susan Schober

Oct 4, 2013

Our 20th Anniversary Concert marks the final performances of our beloved colleague Susan Schober, a founding ensemble member of Chicago a cappella. Susan has decided to depart our stage in order to spend more time with her young family, after a remarkable run of 193 series performances with Chicago a cappella.

When the ensemble performed its first concert, Susan was only 18 years old, making her the youngest member the group has ever had. When she took the lead on “They Are Falling All Around Me” at that very first concert, it was clear that she brought extraordinary gifts to the ensemble. Her velvety vocals, superb musicianship, and irresistible stage presence have made her an audience favorite ever since. She made indelible impressions with solos in “Chicago Bound Blues,” “Una matica de ruda,” Fever,” “Prayer of the Venerable Bede,” and “Wade in the Water,” among many others.

Although we will dearly miss her presence on our stages, Susan will continue to serve behind the scenes as our Education Outreach Coordinator. In her first two years in that role, she has already created a unique and innovative High School Internship Program and an exciting Youth Choral Festival. We look forward to her future successes in bringing choral singing to the next generation.

From the entire ensemble, Board of Directors, and staff – past and present – thank you, Susan, for 20 years of your wonderful talent.

20th Anniversary Celebration: Reflections and Memories, part II

Sep 10, 2013

As Chicago a cappella approaches its 20th birthday, we're looking back at our favorite moments on and off the stage. Join us as we reflect on 20 successful years! Stay tuned for more from our singers and friends throughout the season.

Peter van de Graaf, Program Director, WFMT

All of us here at WFMT join in extending our congratulations and gratitude to Chicago a cappella for the countless hours of pleasure in the concert hall, in recordings, and, especially for us, on our airwaves over the past 20 years. That amount of time is no small feat in the arts world and speaks to the incredibly high level of artistry you have been able to maintain over such a long period of time. May you continue for countless years into the future!


Trevor Mitchell, tenor has been your favorite Chicago a cappella concert to sing in and why?

I’d have to say I have 3 favorites. Intimate a cappella because we were only 5 and the blend, intimacy and breadth of repertoire was amazing.  Go Down, Moses and Days of Awe, both for the same reasons.  The programs represented the depth, pathos and joy of a once oppressed people who persevered and made wonderful music in the process. The latter 2 concerts were deeply emotional for me, and while being musically and vocally challenging, it was worth it.

Tell us a favorite memory involving Chicago a cappella.

During a performance of "Hineni" and being so connected to the text and the connection with the audience, and thinking that we were all one in those moments.  No age, race, religion, etc. The difficulties of the score totally went away during the performances.


Besty Grizzell, mezzo

What has been your favorite piece to sing with Chicago a cappella?

I adore Chen Yi’s "The West Lake." Though very difficult, it presents a beautiful sonic picture of a rippling lake. It brings me right to my favorite place, the family cabin on Pike Lake in northern Wisconsin.

Tell us a favorite memory involving Chicago a cappella.

I had the privilege of programming the All About the Women concert. I picked the music, arranged several of the tunes, and crafted the program along with our guest, actor Barbara Robertson. Coming into the first performance, I was unsure as to whether or not the audience would appreciate the intense drama of the journey presented in the second half of the program. Having them burst into applause at the end was extremely gratifying.



Aaron Johnson, bass (1998-2007)

What was one of your favorite concerts with Chicago a cappella?

One of my favorite and most memorable concerts was my very first performance with CAC in spring of 1998, Tastes of Paradise. The program was filled with unique, challenging, and fun music, such as the American premiere of Bob Chilcott's "Fragments from His Dish", which quickly became an ensemble favorite. It was also the first time I had ever been part of such intimate, high-caliber music-making. I believe it is this mix of excellence and enjoyment that has attracted singers and spectators to Chicago a cappella for these past 20 years.

Tell us a favorite memory involving Chicago a cappella.

I clearly remember my serendipitous audition for Chicago a cappella. Jonathan was looking for a last-minute replacement and had gotten my name from another director in town, with whom I was unable to sing because of schedule conflicts. Jonathan and I met in a tiny practice room at Northwestern University (in the "beehive"). I sang a couple pieces in different styles, got through some challenging sight reading, and sang in unison and then in harmony with Jonathan. I passed the audition and, luckily, had no scheduling conflicts! Little did I know that would be the start of a decade of making music with Chicago a cappella.

A tour memory: On our tour to Mexico we took several planes to get to the town where we were performing. During one of our transfers our host warned us we were about to board a "very small plane". We reached the tarmac and saw a small, but average-sized commuter plane. "That's not so bad," someone said, to which the guide replied, "That's not your plane. This is your plane," pointing to what looked like a minivan with wings. Good thing Kathleen had brought her rosary.


Carol LoVerde, founding member, soprano (1993-2001)

Tell us a favorite memory involving Chicago a cappella.

I am so proud and happy to add my voice to the chorus of musicians, supporters and admirers who celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Chicago a cappella with Jonathan, performers, and all the staff and board!! The debut concert was a highlight for me because of the music choices and the ensemble! This was one of the most exciting performances of my career. There are way too many favorite pieces, but one that stands out for me is Jerry Troxell's "Prayers of Steel". Love our Holidays a cappella CD, Palestrina, and The Music of Frank Lloyd Wright. Great programming and always fantastic program notes!!! Keep celebrating and my very best wishes for continued success!!

20th Anniversary Celebration: Reflections and Memories

Aug 7, 2013

As Chicago a cappella approaches its 20th birthday, we're looking back at our favorite moments on and off the stage. Join us as we reflect on 20 successful years! Stay tuned for more from our singers and friends throughout the season.

Founder and Artistic Director Jonathan Miller

What has been your favorite Chicago a cappella concert to sing in (or music direct) and why?

As a singer, my favorites shows were Chicago, Chicago (just so danged much fun), The Intimate A Cappella (beautlful music, sung right after 9/11 in a way that affirmed life poignantly for me) and The Nordic Wolf (an amazing collaboration with exquisite repertoire).

As a composer, I love having my new works come to life, and the piece I’m the most proud of the ensemble for performing is my Old Testament Spirituals that we did on the Wade in the Water show in early 2012.

As music director, Genius in the Synagogue. It was wonderful to dig deeply into Max Janowski’s musical life and to paint a portrait of him with his own creations.

While I took none of these roles for Days of Awe and Rejoicing, but rather worked more behind the scenes in programming and Hebrew coaching, that show will endure as one of the best things I’ve done in my whole creative life. It was really special.

What was your favorite piece to sing with Chicago a cappella?

My top five list:
• Hoss Brock’s arrangement of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
• Bob Chilcott’s cycle about food, Fragments from his dish.
• My own “Where the Bee Sucks—Funk Version.”
• The Credo from Forestier’s Missa “L’homme armé.”
• “Prayers of Steel” by Jerry Troxell.

Tell us a favorite memory involving Chicago a cappella.

Being part of the Navidad en México performance at St. Agnes of Bohemia in Little Village. It was a transcendent experience.  Jorge Córdoba and the singers connected with that audience in a profound way, and I will never forget it.

What are you most looking forward to in the 2013-14 season?

Bringing old repertoire back with the current roster for our Best of CAC program this fall, which I’m directing. We are sounding so good these days – better than ever. To bring that sound to repertoire drawn from our whole history will be a delight for me.


From Executive Director and bass Matt Greenberg

What has been your favorite Chicago a cappella concert to sing in and why?

All About the Women was probably my favorite, because of the dramatic aspect of the show.  The wonderful actress Barbara Robertson brought such humor and humanity to the performance, and the program that Betsy created was both fun and substantive.  Also, it was just really fun music to sing!

Tell us a favorite memory involving Chicago a cappella.

I remember riding in the car with Jonathan Miller after a singing gig, which is how we had met, when he described this group he was hoping to create.  This was probably 1992.  He was envisioning a small ensemble of fine singers who could convincingly perform any style of music, from Renaissance to pop.  His dream was to create a group that reveled in a wide variety of genres, created intimate performances, and had the highest possible musical standards. When he asked me, "Is that something you might be interested in?," I didn't miss a beat: "That pretty much describes exactly what I'd like to do!"

Six Questions with Paul Crabtree

Aug 6, 2013

Get to know Paul Crabtree, the innovative composer whose music we've sung for over 10 years. We'll premiere his new commission at The Best of Chicago a cappella: A 20th Anniversary Celebration. He also joins us for free post-concert conversations after the Oct. 12 and 13 performances.

1. Why did you choose the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins for Chicago a cappella's new commission?

Chicago a cappella's 20 years of success means that they are doing something right, and so I was drawn to Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetic rendering of 'rightness'. He was weeks away from ordination when he saw a bird resting on the wind and then racing off with great assurance and beauty. This symbolized to him that the step he was about to take into the Jesuit order would transform him from The Crow, as he called his candidate-self, into a rapturous and celebratory bird, buoyed by the Spirit of rightness. The Windhover is his ecstatic response to this epiphany. 

2. Describe your compositional process for The Windhover.

Since hearing the poem read or sung flattens out much of the ambiguity that is meant for the eye and inner ear of the reader, it's hard to set it in a way that adds rather than subtracts. So I set the text narratively, using a church equivalent of the message that the poet is initially struggling with; Es flog ein kleins Valdvoegelein is a German folksong that was turned into a hymn (reaching America as O Day of Rest and Gladness.) Beginning with exiting a church service and sighting the bird, the piece works to transform the folksong into a hymn, just as the bird-epiphany works to transform the poet into a priest.

3. What is your favorite piece that you've composed that Chicago a cappella has performed and why?

The Valley of Delight was an unwitting requiem for my brother, who died suddenly of brain cancer last year. The last movement is about deterioration; the repeating harmony slowly starts to break down and the imagery is about the onset of night. It's very simple, and 'less is more.'

4. If I weren't a composer, I would be…

A baker (which I have been) or a priest (which I have never been). Yeast symbolizes sin, bad behavior, evil in the New Testament, and yet yeast also produces the two central symbols of Christian redemption, the wine and the bread.

5. What are you currently listening to on your iPod?

Joni Mitchell's 1976 Album Hejira, nine songs about her road trip from Maine to Los Angeles. I have listened to them about a thousand times, mining them for material for a set of liturgical choral pieces about loneliness. Wilderness time interests me right now; it often feels so arid, and yet it often leads to peak experiences. I am also stuck on some outdoor dance music from 1551 by Susato that makes me boisterously happy.

6. If I could change one thing  about classical music, what would it be?

Only one? I would make today's new music more willing to engage with difficult subject matter. Contemporary art is fearless, and the modern art museums are full of people, but most contemporary music risks very little, and in the end says very little. Not that The Windhover is in any way a shocker; its message is that daily life can be full of divine fire.

Newer Entries   Older Entries