Once Upon a Symphony, the CSO family-oriented series designed to introduce pre-school children the joys of classical music, returns Jan. 9 and Feb. 20 with “The King Elephant and the Mice,” a delightful tale of courage found in unexpected places. The program, which features members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and storyteller Krithika Rajagopalan, was developed in collaboration with Natya Dance Theatre, the nationally celebrated Indian classical dance company based in Chicago.

Now in its fifth year, Once Upon a Symphony was originally conceived by Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green creative consultant, as an extension of the CSO’s successful family programming to engage even younger audience members in classical music through storytelling. Previous programs in the series have drawn on familiar tales such as “The Ugly Duckling” or “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” developed as part of an ongoing collaboration with Chicago Children’s Theatre.

Jon Weber, director of learning programs for the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute, recalls that he hoped “to do something a little bit different for this program. We wanted to diversify our storytelling tradition and have a chance to present the story in a slightly different way than we have done lately.”

Weber and Katy Clusen, coordinator of learning programs at the Institute, reached out to Natya Dance Theatre and its associate artistic director, Krithika Rajagopalan, to develop a program that would marry the classical music canon with the rich traditions of Indian classical dance and storytelling.

At Rajagopalan’s suggestion, the team selected “The King Elephant and the Mice” from the Panchatantra tales, an ancient collection of Indian folk stories with powerful moral lessons. “I love the Panchatantra tales, because not only are they just so vivid in bringing animals to the forefront and not just people, very much like Aesop’s Fables,” she says. “Being able to adapt them to a younger audience is crucial, because if we can’t plant the seed young, it won’t bloom.”

Krithika Rajagopalan of Natya Dance Theatre.

Krithika Rajagopalan of Natya Dance Theatre.

The simple story, about the mighty King Elephant and tiny mice who help him, teaches a valuable lesson about “not judging a book by its cover” as Weber observes, and how you can find courage in very unexpected places. The story entertains while it teaches: “In this particular story, what hit home to me is that we are able to discuss assumptions and differences in people,” Rajagopalan says. “We are able to show that how we view ourselves can also change. We can give ourselves the opportunity to make a mistake and also to rise from it.”

Learning such social and emotional lessons is at the heart of every Once Upon a Symphony program. “Music and the CSO should be a resource to help our audiences, especially children in Chicago, understand more about themselves and how they relate to each other and their communities,” Weber says.

However, despite the important message, the story is told with humor and lightness. “We also liked this story because we could take some license with it in a fun and funny way,” Weber says.

Adds Rajagopalan, “We have some humor in there — great humor for children and some jokes for the parents, so they can feel like, ‘OK, I didn’t need a cup of coffee for this!’”

The story comes to life through classical Indian dance elements, including mudras, or hand/body positions, that depict different animals. As Rajagopalan interprets the story through her tradition, it is also told musically through excerpts that depict the low, heavy sounds of the elephants (Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals) and the light, scurrying sounds of the mice (Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours).

“The pieces that they have chosen are so responsive to the story,” Rajagopalan says. “As the story moves, you can close your eyes, and you can see the animals. You can see them sit and scurry, you can see the doe look from right to left, you can see them prance.”

The music is brought to life by a team of four musicians. Charlie Vernon, the CSO’s bass trombone, plays the King Elephant, whose costume is one of the show’s highlights. “He has a trunk literally attached to the slide on his trombone. It’s a pretty spectacular, fabulous accessory for him!” Weber says jokingly. Rounding out the musicians are CSO violin Mihaela Ionescu, Teresa Reilly on clarinet and Melanie Cottle on horn. Cottle and Reilly, though not CSO members, are veterans of Once Upon a Symphony programs.

In addition to their musical roles, the musicians participate in the storytelling and also stay after each performance to allow children and adult audience members to see their instruments and to talk about the performance. “Once Upon a Symphony is a real opportunity to see CSO musicians in an expanded role and get to know them better,” Weber says. “There is always a huge amount of enthusiasm on the kids’ parts to see and hear and touch the instruments up close. We hope we are planting a seed for their interest in playing an instrument and taking a music class. For the adults in the audience, we hope it enriches their sense of who are our musicians are on a personal level. It’s also an amazing chance to hear our musicians perform in an intimate setting.”

As with any Once Upon a Symphony, the entire experience is interactive, with inviting projections by Mike Tutaj, who has designed many Beyond the Score productions for the CSO; there also are engaging sets and costumes and plenty of opportunities for the children to be involved in the story. “There’s not a lot of sit and watch,” Weber says. “It’s not a passive experience for any of the kids.”

Pre-concert activities, which begin 45 minutes before each performance, are a key part of Once Upon a Symphony programs. The activities have been developed in partnership with the DePaul University Music Education professor Jacqueline Kelly-McHale and are led by DePaul students and trained docents. Weber recommends that every family come early to participate: “There is a lot of playful exploration of the repertoire and the concepts beforehand, and teaching the hello and the goodbye songs, so that when you come into the hall, you are prepared for a great, engaging, participatory experience.”

Rajagopalan hopes that the fun and learning will continue beyond the performance space: “I hope they go home that they remember these stories and retell them. It’s in the retelling and the personalizing — whether listening to music or seeing dance or hearing the words of a message of the story — is when we bring it back full circle and achieve understanding.”

Once Upon a Symphony performances of “The King Elephant and the Mice” are Jan. 9 and Feb. 20 at 10 and 11:45 a.m. Performances for pre-school groups are Feb. 22 at 10:15 and 11:30 a.m. For more information, visit cso.org or call (312) 294-3000.

TOP: Krithika Rajagopalan of Natya Dance Theatre performs in the Once Upon a Symphony production of “The King Elephant and the Mice.” | Photo: Window to the World Communications Inc./Stephen Raskauskas