Talking about his career, Duain Wolfe breaks into a wide smile. “I always say if I ever wrote my autobiography, I’d call it The Accidental Conductor.’’

Accidental maybe, but distinguished as well. Wolfe may not have dreamed about becoming a choral conductor as a boy growing up in Louisiana. But in 1994, after two decades directing opera and choruses in Colorado, he was named director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, one of the most coveted posts in the world of choral music. He succeeded Margaret Hillis, who founded the chorus in 1957 at the invitation of CSO Music Director Fritz Reiner. Under Hillis’ direction, the Chicago Symphony Chorus became one of the world’s best, and Wolfe has continued to build on that tradition.

This season marks Wolfe’s 20th anniversary with the CSO, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus has been front and center since summer. Much of the focus has been on Verdi, a composer close to the heart of CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti. The chorus’ Verdi bicentennial celebrations began at June with performances of Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces with Muti and the CSO in Symphony Center. They continued in August at the Ravinia Festival with a concert version of Aida led by Ravinia Music Director James Conlon. Two months later the orchestra and chorus were back at Symphony Center for four concert performances of Verdi’s Macbeth, led by Muti. On Oct. 10, the exact date of the composer’s 200th birthday, Muti conducted the Verdi Requiem at Symphony Center, a performance that was simulcast to audiences at Millennium Park and the Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen and streamed on websites around the world, including the CSO’s.

To celebrate another important musical anniversary, the 100th birthday of Benjamin Britten, the Chicago Symphony Chorus joined the CSO and guest conductor Charles Dutoit for the composer’s searing War Requiem in November. Six performances of the Chorus’ wildly popular, annual “Welcome Yule!” program are scheduled for Dec. 14-23, and in February, the Chorus returns for performances of Schubert’s Mass in A-Flat Major and Ennio Morricone’s Voices From the Silence with Muti and the CSO.

“We haven’t taken a breath yet,” Wolfe said. “The day after we did Aida, we started rehearsing Macbeth. And we started Aida right after the Four Sacred Pieces in June. So we haven’t stopped.”

Wolfe’s career in music has been similarly non-stop, though he defines some of its important turning points as purely accidental. Wolfe’s family wasn’t especially musical, but as a boy, he sang at church and he and his brother took piano lessons.

“Somehow my mother decided her sons were going to have opportunities,” said Wolfe, a hint of his Louisiana childhood lingering in his slightly lilting speech. “And with me, it took; with him, he wasn’t interested. I had no idea it would become my life. I just liked playing piano. I was a little kid; I thought it was fun.”

Wolfe earned bachelor’s degrees in piano and voice performance from Southeastern Louisiana University and a graduate degree in musicology from North Texas State University, now the University of North Texas. “I thought I was going to be a musicologist,” said Wolfe, “but the performing end ultimately won out.”

As a freshly minted music grad, Wolfe was a triple threat: He could sing, play the piano and conduct, skills that made him highly valuable in the opera world. He soon found himself in Colorado, where he spent two decades working with the Central City Opera Festival. Repertoire ranged from Mozart and Rossini to Britten and Bernstein. In Colorado, he also founded the Colorado Children’s Chorale and the Colorado Symphony Chorus, an ensemble he still directs.

“You’re there in the trenches,” Wolfe said of his years with Central City Opera. “You’re playing opera scores and coaching and conducting staging rehearsals. Next thing you know, you’re in the pit. I spent 20 years conducting opera. Then it was a really logical connection to symphonic [choral work].”

Wolfe turned up on the CSO’s radar screen in the early 1990s shortly after Margaret Hillis announced her plans to retire. Kenneth Jean, then a CSO associate conductor, came to Colorado to lead the Colorado Symphony and Wolfe’s Colorado Symphony Chorus in performances of the Mozart Requiem. “After the concerts were over, he asked if I would have any interest in Chicago,” Wolfe said. “I hadn’t actually thought about it. The following year, he came back to do [Prokofiev’s] Alexander Nevsky, and he said the same thing. By that time, I had thought about it, and I said yes, I’d be interested.

“The CSO called me, and Margaret came out to Colorado to watch me rehearse. They brought me here to do things at Ravinia. And I worked with [Daniel] Barenboim [CSO music director from 1991-2006] on Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden (“Peace on Earth”), and that’s when they engaged me.”

When Wolfe arrived in Chicago for his first tryout sessions with the Chorus, he was immediately struck by its distinctive sound. “The thing that hit me was the sheer bloom of the Chorus’ sound,” he said. “It’s a beautiful sound — and we’re always working on that. It has to be tamed and refined, but those voices have such a gorgeous, gorgeous sound.”

The Chicago Symphony Chorus has approximately 160 members, some of whom have been members for more than three decades. A handful are volunteers, but the vast majority are paid professionals with day jobs as music teachers or freelance musicians. They reaudition for their posts every two or three years, and when the Chorus holds auditions, more than 100 singers typically apply.

Wolfe revels in the level of talent he has at his disposal. But blending that collection of beautiful voices is his main concern. “When you have a lot of really, really good voices, they each have their own artistry. Sometimes I find myself saying, ‘Each of you is so musical and has such an artistic point of view of your own that what we have to do right now is find the common thread.’ We need to feel the same thing — where the top of that phrase really is and how we’re going to release it. Are we going to do a bright release or a soft release or a hard release?”

He looks for singers with a finely honed sense of rhythm. “People think that as long as they can count, they have rhythm,” he said. “But that’s not what rhythm is. Rhythm is really internalized; it’s an inside-of-a-beat thing. If everybody can do that, you can do the diction precisely. The intonation will be so much better because everything is happening at exactly the same time. You can have 12 people singing a part exactly in tune. But if they’re not lined up exactly right [rhythmically], that chord is not in tune.”

A Chicago Symphony Chorus member since 1978, bass Don H. Horisberger also is one of the chorus’ associate directors. “Duain is very clear about what he wants and he works very quickly,” said Horisberger, who also serves as organist and chorus master at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest. “He looks for people who have the musical smarts to get to the product very quickly. He really has brought a very sharp focus in terms of rhythmic ensemble to the Chorus. The Chorus was always known for its ensemble, but he’s taken it to new heights in terms of its rhythmic precision.

“Having spent my first 15 to 20 years of professional chorus experience with Margaret Hillis, I was very proud of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. I liked the comments that it was the best chorus in the world, and I kind of got to the point where I thought there could be no higher level of singing. And Duain came in and proved that was not correct, that there was a higher level of singing. And he’s taken us there.”

Wolfe returns the compliment. For him, preparing Verdi or Mozart or Mahler choral works with skilled chorus members and conductors like Muti, Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink is an unalloyed pleasure: “It is such a privilege to work with the masterpieces of our culture at this level. Even after 20 years, time flies when you’re having fun.

“And,” he said emphatically, “I am.”

Wynne Delacoma, former classical music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, is a freelance arts writer and lecturer.

PHOTO: Duain Wolfe addresses the crowd during a “Welcome Yule!” concert last season at Symphony Center. | Todd Rosenberg Photography


VIDEO: “A Tribute to Duain Wolfe,” produced by Chicago a Cappella and posted on YouTube. 

VIDEO: Tribute reel honoring Duain Wolfe as recipient of the 2012 winner of the Michael Korn Founders Award for the Development of the Professional Choral Art, posted on YouTube.