The Boston Cecilia concert on May 4th at the First Church in Cambridge was far more than the closing concert of the current season. It also marked the farewell of conductor Donald Teeters after 44 years of leading this ensemble (founded in 1876), second only to the Handel and Haydn Society in longevity among Boston’s musical groups. For the last 30 years, Teeters has made a regular practice of offering uncut performances (with an orchestra of period instruments) of the oratorios of Handel, one of the richest and most extensive bodies of music ever written, yet one which most audiences know only to a minuscule degree.
Surely no one would have been disappointed or surprised if he had chosen to end his decades-long term with Boston Cecilia with one of those great and underperformed works that he has opened up to Boston audiences over the years. But in fact he went in an entirely different direction, a program of choral music by contemporary composers with Boston connections, which not only provided a wonderfully stimulating buffet of little-known music (including two premieres of works written specifically for the evening by composer-in-residence Scott Wheeler) but also showed off the impressive musicality of his chorus in these challenging compositions.
With the assistance of Wheeler, who suggested several items on the program, and recalling one favorite work that the Cecilia has performed on two previous occasions, Teeters chose for the composers long-time area residents like Arthur Berger, Donald Martino, and Wheeler himself , as well as two composers who studied here, Andrew Rindfleisch and Tom Cipullo.
Arthur Berger is not at all known as a composer for chorus. Indeed, his a cappella setting of the first two verses of Psalm 92 in Hebrew may be the only such work in his oeuvre. I was therefore delighted that Wheeler proposed including it in the program in Berger’s centennial year. Though it certainly has its musical challenges in pitch and perhaps especially in rhythm, the 1951 score is closer in style to Stravinsky than to Schoenberg, representing, as it does, Berger’s earlier neo-Classical approach. It is a vigorous and festive piece, one that I hope other choruses will consider.
The two short pieces by Rindfleisch and Cipullo were performed as a group in the middle of the first half. Andrew Rindfleisch wrote In manus tuas (Into thy hands) as a contemporary response to a motet composed by Sebastián de Vivanco from about 1600. The performance began with the older composition, then the modern rendering flowed directly from it, retaining the sense of lyric counterpoint — though with a much more intense harmonic language. Nonetheless the spirit of the Renaissance still seemed to hover over the modern composition.
Cipullo has enjoyed considerable success with his 1996 composition, The Shadows Around the House, from which one movement — “The Sky Over My Mother’s House” — was performed here. The poem (by Colombia-born Jaime Manrique) is a nocturne evoking the scents of a July night, the brilliance of the stars, and a nostalgic remembrance of the family home. The (mostly) a cappella performance evokes longing and distance (physical or psychological or temporal) through subtle occasional strokes on tubular chimes that magically call up a feeling of far away.
Martino was fascinated by the poetry of Robert Herrick, one of the Cavalier poets of the 17th century best known for sensuous secular texts such as “Whenas in silks my Julia goes.” But on at least two occasions, Martino made a selection from Herrick’s far less well known religious poems. The first time, he wrote Seven Pious Pieces, which the Boston Cecilia has performed on two previous occasions, in 1976 and 1986. Martino employed the 12-tone technique in his compositions, but in both Seven Pious Pieces and in The White Island (a centennial commission by the BSO for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus), his later choral work based on sacred texts of Herrick, Martino arranged the row in such a way as to make possible intimations of tonality along the way. The work is still a challenge to the musicianship of the singers, especially in matters of tuning, but they met the challenge with aplomb. On this occasion Teeters chose to omit the final number, possibly because the sixth piece builds to a strong climax, with a central passage for the men’s voices that sounds surprisingly like a male glee club about to embark on “Gaudeamus igitur” (proof, if it were needed, that well-crafted 12-tone music can present a wide range of musical effects).
This leaves the three works that I have left for last, because they comprised a good half of the program: two premieres and a marvelous older work by Scott Wheeler. The three works are all very different from one another, so that having such a preponderance of the work of one composer did not overbalance the character of the evening.
The first new piece might best be described as a kind of motet — though with a secular text, a poem by Shalin Liu, which is nonetheless a consideration of death in compact yet wide-ranging images calling for a seriousness of musical purpose. Performed early in the program, it was happily repeated to open the second half, giving a welcome opportunity to come to grips with the non-linear musical setting. Wheeler begins with two individual words — each of which takes up an entire line toward the end of the poem (“Slowly” … “Faraway”) uttered softly in the lower registers of the chorus as a ruminative ostinato before the sopranos enter with the beginning of the poem (“Immediate and present death…”). The intertwining contrapuntal lines made it something of a challenge, at first hearing, to connect the music with the poem. A somewhat crisper enunciation of the consonants in the texts would have helped, too. During the first performance, I felt myself rather at sea with regard to the poem until the climactic moment about midway when the full chorus came together for the expression of “Crashing waves…”For this reason the second performance was especially welcome, because it allowed the listener to approach the piece prepared to take in the oblique opening and recognize the darkly expressive music as it was matched to the poem.
To lead into intermission, the ladies of the chorus performed an award-winning score for treble voices, a truly delicious setting of nonsense poems for children by Arnold Lobel and Jack Prelutsky for treble voices, with violin, piano four-hands, and three percussionists. The splendid instrumentalists were violinist Sharan Leventhal, pianists Barbara Bruns and Carolyn Day Skelton, and percussionists Frank Epstein, William Bruns, and Keith Glavash. Three solo passages were sung by chorus members Wendy Silverberg, J. Genevieve Hendrey, and Sarah Matthews. The piece, Whiskers and Rhymes, was written for and dedicated to Marie Stultz and the Treble Chorus of New England, for which she was founder and artistic director for 28 years. In 1992 it received the grand prize in the Composers Guild Composition Contest. One is not surprised upon hearing the score, rhythmically and sonically inventive, alive with wit and tunefulness; it is a superb composition for young treble voices. Marie Stultz was present to hear it again and told me at intermission how rapturously it had been received at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, when the Treble Chorus of New England performed it there on a tour 20 years ago. The reception was just as warm and fervent in this performance, though, truth to tell, the sonorities of young treble voices (voci bianchi, or “white voices,” as they are called in Italy) would probably project more directly than the mature women’s voices heard on this occasion. Nonetheless, Whiskers and Rhymes is a thoroughly delightful work; I hope the directors of youth choruses are able to find out about it and give it a spin.
The final work on the program was another Scott Wheeler premiere. The title New Love Song Waltzes is promising on the face of it, evoking as it does two of the best-loved works of Brahms, the light-hearted Liebeslieder waltzes of Opus 52 and the somewhat more “experienced” waltzes of the second set, Opus 65. Brahms chose poetry of relative non-entities (except for Goethe, who in the very last song of Opus 65 calls upon the Muses — and Art — to console hearts wounded by Cupid. But Wheeler has selected four texts by Donne and Shakespeare in alternation, texts of more literary quality. The Shakespeare texts are both songs (“Take, oh take those lips away” and “It was a lover and his lass”); the Donne poems are far less familiar. And though the very effective four-hands piano accompaniment is clearly an homage to Brahms, the settings (as Wheeler noted in the program) are not quite waltzes in the same sense, but rather more clearly inspired by Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, a show in which every number employs different versions of triple time. The variety of mood in these four songs is striking and congenial, the setting of the words lively and graceful. The audience responded warmly both to this very effective new choral work, which deserves an active future, and also, especially, to conductor Donald Teeters for a marvelous capstone to his long and distinguished career with the Boston Cecilia.