Chicago a cappella plus one


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Some people just can't help messing with your mind. Take Chicago a cappella, the nine-voice group that sings?#34;as you'd expect?#34;without instrumental accompaniment. The name will stay the same, but for the first time this Saturday evening at Unity Temple, the singers will have some non-human company.

It's been "just voices, lips and ears," for the last 12 years, says founder, artistic director, singer and conductor Jonathan Miller. "But after getting a particular sound and exploring the possibilities, we thought it would be fun to add a single instrumentalist."

The first step was deciding which instrument to use. Miller and crew went down the list: Piano? "Everyone does that," he remembers thinking. The list was narrowed to saxophone, flute, harp. But Miller settled on percussion.

"A percussionist plays a dozen instruments. You get more bang for the buck," he explains.

Until a few months ago, when he remarried and moved to Downers Grove, Miller had been living in Oak Park. When he was directing Heritage Chorale here, he met Debbie Katz Knowles, a percussionist who accompanied the group in concert. He invited her to come join this experiment, and it's been a great fit. "She's totally digging it," Miller says.

Knowles will play (in turn, not all at once) vibes, snare drum, bells, marimba, timpani and more. All that variety complicates things for the arrangers, since they have to keep in mind that one person has to do it all, but it's apparently no big deal for a percussionist.

At the concert, dubbed CAC + 1, there will be both new music and pieces Chicago a cappella has performed before, but now re-scored to add percussion. "We have good collaborative relationships with composers around the world," and they were happy to oblige, says Miller.

The centerpiece of the concert is Chicago composer Robert Applebaum's Exodus Suite. He reworked seven movements to feature vibes, timpani, tambourine, tom-tom and snare drum accompanying the voices. It's a "ravishingly beautiful" work, says Miller, all in Hebrew and based on texts used by Handel for solos and duets in the oratorio Israel in Egypt. Brazilian composer Eli-Eri Moura also re-scored his Portuguese-language piece, "Salmo 150," specifically for Chicago a cappella with timpani, vibes and hand percussion. There's also music from Africa and Ireland.

Closer to home, Oak Park composer Glenn Meade contributed "Cookin' School." He's written lots of different kinds of music; he's particularly known for his use of synthesizers, and he's done digital editing for a number of Chicago a cappella CDs. This song, though, comes from a set of dance pieces?#34;for a single vocalist and instruments?#34;that he's been working on.

"It's a fox trot, a standard jazz rhythm," says Meade, who takes ballroom dance lessons with his wife. He rearranged the piece for this concert, with some of the voices taking parts originally written for instruments (but with words).

"He's a really good sport," says Miller. "This one is particularly fun?#34;the choir ends up snapping."

CAC + 1 is Saturday, Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. at Unity Temple, 875 Lake St. Tickets are $25, $22 for seniors 62 and up, and $15 for students 23 and under. For more information, call (773) 755-1628 or see

?#34;Laura Stuart

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