Oak Park and River Forest can claim two world premieres of concert works within only eight days. On Sunday, Jan. 21, Heritage Chorale, directed by Kurt Amolsch, brought The Butterfly's Ball to life at First United Methodist Church, right on the heels of the previous week's newly unveiled Martin, Coretta, and Rosa by Chicago Sinfonietta at Dominican University.
Commissioned by the Chorale as part of a series to celebrate its upcoming 25th anniversary, The Butterfly's Ball is destined for fame far beyond Oak Park. This whimsical setting of playful pre-Victorian poetry stands among the final choral works in the long and distinguished output of Boston composer Daniel Pinkham, who died of leukemia this past December at age 83, not long after having birthed this magical and fanciful setting of child-like images from toads to gnats, spiders, and squirrels for chorus and piano.
An eight-minute work, The Butterfly's Ball is set to poetry by William Roscoe, a native son of Liverpool, who dreamed up the poem for his son Robert. His vivid words capture the excitement of an assortment of creatures romping off to a picnic on a sunny afternoon.
Pinkham, who in some of his best known works has stacked up strident dissonances for expressive effect, here renders mellifluous sevenths and ninths in a near-cabaret mood. The Butterfly's Ball is jam-packed with effervescent lyricism, fitting for creatures such as "the sly little Dormouse [who] crept out of his Hole," and broken by pensive holds on haunting harmonies, reflecting "the Spider, with Finger so fine [who came out] to shew his Dexterity on the tight Line." Obviously this 83-year-old never forgot how to spell F-U-N.
Pinkham's jazzy, sometimes almost lazy, six-eight swaggering for the piano was delivered admirably by accompanist Tehra Hiolski. The vocal writing is mostly homophonic, which matches the narrative mood of the poet perfectly without over-taxing a skilled volunteer choir. The Chorale's 52 singers ably delivered torrents of text with commendable diction. Thanks to a friend of a friend who knew Mr. Pinkham, Heritage Chorale aimed high with this ambitious commission and ought to be proud for nailing their target.
Maestro Amolsch conceived this program as a showcase for the newly restored E.M. Skinner pipe organ at First United Methodist Church. The instrument, already welcomed with accolades in several solo concerts last fall, proved to be a colorful and moving accompaniment for the choir, as played by accompanist Hiolski and guest organist Michael Shawgo in works by Brahms, Howells, and Vierne.
In other works, the program carefully blended well-loved stand-bys for choir and organ, among them Benjamin Britten's Jubilate Deo, with hidden gems such as Chicagoan Frank Ferko's warm Motet for the Annunciation. River Forest composer Dick Hillert's Alleluia! This is the Day was among the a cappella works that showed the choir at its best: well-rehearsed, balanced across the spectrum of voice parts, and conducted by Amolsch without overstatement.
The concert closed, not with a eulogy or somber homage to Mr. Pinkham, but with a lively reading of the catchy "Gloria," arranged for choir, organ, and two trumpets from his Christmas Cantata. In most popular entertainment of our day, choirs and organs have lost their places to spotlights and drums.
But just think: When was the last time you felt like singing "Alleluia" or watched 52 earnest faces glow with the abandon of shouting "Gloria?" Savoring the childlike exuberance of sentiments like these just could be one of the secrets to a life as long as Daniel Pinkham's.