in: News & Features

March 1, 2011

Don Teeters Opines on Handel and Cecilia

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BMInt staff photo

Since Donald Teeters assumed the directorship of Boston Cecilia in 1968 (Then The Cecilia Society) he has brought 19 Handel oratorios to grateful Boston audiences. In his 43rd year, and with but one year remaining in his tenure, he has decided to return to his favorite, “Jephtha,” Handel’s last, perhaps greatest, oratorio, in a stylish, uncut performance.

Tenor Aaron Sheehan will be Jephtha, joined by additional distinguished soloists: Teresa Wakim, soprano; Deborah Rentz-Moore, mezzo-soprano; Martin Near, countertenor; Ron Williams, baritone Daniel Stepner, concertmaster of The Boston Cecilia Period Instrument Orchestra Chorus and Period Instrument Orchestra under the direction of Handel scholar Donald Teeters at Jordan Hall on Sunday, March 13, 2011 at 2:30 PM Sharp! Please note the unusual start time.

Lee Eiseman of BMInt recently spoke with Don Teeters.

BMInt: We’re about to celebrate your 43rd anniversary as conductor of Boston Cecilia. Tell us how you got here in 1968, what Boston and Cecilia were like and how you transformed Cecilia into what it is today.

Well, first of all, I had been in Boston for 12 years before 1968, so I was familiar with the city. I had gone to school there at New England Conservatory, and I had been selected by Thomas Dunn to be his assistant conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society. One major difference between then and now: my first concert with Boston Cecilia had five reviews; the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald Traveller, the Record American, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Harvard Crimson. Fortunately they were good reviews. The group was very young.

The group goes back to…

… 1876, the official founding. The first conductor, BJ Lang, conducted for 30-some years, and then during the ‘30s and ‘40s, Arthur Fiedler was conductor. Interims between those times and the time when I came were rocky. Sometimes very rocky. Sometimes caused by management failures. There was a period when there was a very strong president who was hiring and firing a conductor each year, because the conductor was not meeting the president’s view of what the group should be doing. There was a longing to reestablish a contact with the BSO, which had been a regular reliable activity during Fiedler’s tenure.

I was lucky in that they had been through these bad times; my immediate predecessor was James Cunningham, who was choral conductor at BU. He had weeded out all the old timers. He had a great following because he was well established on the North Shore, so he had brought in a lot of young singers from there into Cecilia. So it had become a very young, very lively group. But then he was offered a job at Berkeley in California, so he was only a one-year, then they hired me. It was kind of a very nice situation to come into…

He had broken all the china and you didn’t have to.

And I didn’t have to do any bending. So I told them — they didn’t have a lot of budget — I’m not interested in conducting outside the center of the city. I really want to be part of music-making in the very heart of Boston or in venues that are recognized as concert venues, like Cambridge. My being young and they so young, they just said, “Sure, let us do that.” The first season, as I said, we got the five reviews, but there was a good response throughout the first season. We did some Bach and we did some Stravinsky. We did kind of diverse programming.

That was before the early-music focus.

In Cecilia. The early music movement in Boston was well established. Thomas Dunn, with whom I had worked and still worked with when I went with Cecilia, was a real proponent of stylistic approach to pre-nineteenth-century music. His love for that repertoire, particularly Bach and Handel, really did bleed into me in a serious way.

He was your mentor?

Very much a mentor. I found his approach so refreshing, especially with Handel. What little I knew of Handel was from performances that were so heavy and so slow and ponderous, and such large scale. When I was young, there was a radio program called The Voice of Firestone, and every year at about Easter time Eleanor Steber would come on and sing “I know that my redeemer liveth”; it took nearly the whole half hour of the program, the tempo was so slow. I could never figure out why that was such a sad piece. Tom Dunn explained to me that it wasn’t a sad piece, it was a happy piece. It had to be reflective of what the tempo was about, particularly at that point in the oratorio.

Sometimes the early-music movement errs on the side of losing emotion for musical textural accuracy, and it’s more about dotted rhythms than it is about conveying the meaning of the words.

That’s because it was an early aspect of the early instrument period. People really only had scholarly writings to guide them about performance style of pre-nineteenth-century music. What happened very quickly was that people studied the scholarship but also they learned from other performers. Boston has been so rich to have so many musicians who are interested in exploring all kinds of things musically.

You don’t have to react against those overblown performance practices anymore.

The reason Tom didn’t go to period instruments is he didn’t think the city was well enough equipped to play in the style he wanted. When I went to Cecilia, I started doing Handel early on, and Bach, but used modern instruments, because I had the same feeling. By 1980, that situation had changed, and there were enough players in the city who really were first-rank players of period instruments. You could hire an orchestra and feel comfortable. You didn’t have to apologize. Ever since then I could never consider doing a pre-nineteenth-century piece with anything other than the instruments that were appropriate for the style.

It doesn’t answer all the problems and there is no one way to perform any great composer’s music. I’m sure of that. In Boston we’re lucky, almost unique in the world, because we have a tight community of instrumentalists and singers, now several generations of singers who have devoted themselves particularly to Handel’s style and to Bach’s style, singing, listening to each other, a small group of conductors who are hiring the same people all the time. So the conductors are learning, the singers are learning, the instrumentalists are learning by performance.

How many instrumentalists are exclusively playing early music instruments?

Not too many. That’s a great sign. The problem that so many string players have had and seem to have conquered is the playing at the different pitch level. Modern instruments generally play at A=440 and period instruments, by some sort of universal international convention, play at A=415, a half a step lower.

So for somebody with absolute pitch, they have to think about it in a different key. Of course wind players probably don’t have that problem because they’re used to having the note sound at a different pitch from what’s written….

So you have one more year as conductor of Cecilia. Jephtha is your choice for one of your major swansongs. Is this a piece that means a lot to you?

It’s a very important piece to me. We’ve done it once before. Most of the big oratorios we’ve only been able to do one time, mostly for economic reasons. I chose Jephtha, because Jephtha is Handel’s last oratorio. For me it is a very poignant association. When he was writing it he was very much showing signs of age. This was in 1751. His health was failing and – of great importance – his eyes were failing. At the end of the second act there is a chorus that I think may be the best choral sequence in all of Handel. It begins with the text “How dark, o Lord, are thy decrees.” As you look at a facsimile of the manuscript score, the notes become blurrier, the stems look less and less straight. He gets to near the end of the first part of this chorus and he writes a little note at the bottom of the page “13 February 1751, I must leave off because I can no longer see to write.” Just thinking about that makes me tear up. A few days later on the 23rd of February, there’s a note on the next page, saying things are a bit better. It was his 66th birthday. He was able to finish the act; then he had to take a month or so off. This was very unusual for Handel. He was writing this very fast. Then that was the last completed full work of his. He was able to do some editing of some pieces later and adapting of some pieces to different purpose. That was his last major creative enterprise. To me that’s very significant. I can’t think of a better way to end my career with Cecilia than to pick up Handel’s farewell gesture.

We have a wonderful cast of singers. It’s a good band. The librettist gave Handel all kinds of opportunities to let these singers and these characters reveal who they are early on. This is not unusual in that era in opera and in oratorio. In the first act, the characters introduce themselves and set up the plot. The plot develops in the second act and in the third act, resolves. That’s in theatre, opera, and oratorio. Handel was lucky to get a librettist who could set up the structure that way. It happens here. The choruses are wonderful. The chorus only plays Israelites. Handel often liked to have competing choruses. Pagan choruses against Israelites, for instance, because he has a chance to really characterize…

And next year, your last season?

It’s already set. We’re going to begin with the St. Matthew Passion. My final concert with Cecilia will be a newly commissioned piece from Scott Wheeler. It’s going to be love songs choruses for piano four hands. Does that remind you of any composer’s efforts? Obviously he’s taken the idea from the Brahms. I don’t know what he’s going to write. He’s going to help me as curator of that concert, help me find pieces that will be sympathetic to Brahms. Scott and I have had a long relationship; I just love his music. Our recording of his opera Construction of Boston is a wonderful achievement of a couple of years ago.

Has Cecilia done a lot of recording over its long history?

Not as much as we should have. We try to be faithful particularly to local composers We’ve commissioned James Woodman in past season.  Again, it’s not enough. It should always be more. My predecessor B.J. Lang, was wonderful in that regard.

Of course there were living composers whom one wanted to hear in those days.

What was not popular was when he tried to introduce Bach, because who wants to hear those antique composers? … And then even Brahms caused controversy

So is there life for you after Cecilia?

Well I certainly hope so! One of the problems of my life is that because of my church work and because of Cecilia and my teaching, I’ve been really tied to Boston. I’d like to be a guest conductor. With my experience in Handel I think I have some good opportunities both in the country and abroad to do some Handel performances or other things. Bach and Handel are central to my life, but I’d also like to explore some other repertoire that hasn’t been suited. I’d like to conduct Meistersinger …but I’m probably   not going to have a chance to do that.

I’ll continue with my church work for another couple of years and I’ll continue teaching at the Conservatory as long as the students take my courses and as long as they pay me. That offers me a lot of freedom after that. After a couple of years I will have a lot of freedom, if my health holds.

You made your debut in 1936?

Not my debut as a conductor- my debut on earth. I tell people I conduct the Boston Cecilia which is now in its 135th season, and no I’m not the founding conductor.

1 Comment

  1. I keep returning to this interview with the thought of making a comment, and then I stop myself in fear of creating a querelle de bouffons. But here I am again.

    The issue with modern string players playing period instruments is not primarily that of playing at a different pitch. In fact, I would argue, that has almost nothing to do with it. It’s that the same technique is often applied to the baroque-style instrument. For instance, a heavy “modern” bow technique can result in poor intonation. Too often, players do not let the instrument inform their own technique, and, instead, they play the same way on every instrument.

    Is it good that many modern players are also playing baroque-style instruments? Not if they’re playing them the same way and not if they haven’t taken the time to understand the difference.

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — March 2, 2011 at 4:36 pm

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