The Boston Cecilia’s opening concert (of its 139th season) served to memorialize its revered longtime music director, Donald Teeters, who died in August. (see Barbara Bruns’s eulogy here). According to the program notes from Teeters’successor, Nicholas White, this “Czech-American Connection” concert evolved from a series of conversations White had, particularly with Teeters, whom he had heard conduct Stravinsky’s Mass last June. Teeters had also spoken of visiting Dvořák’s gravesite. All Saints, Brookline was packed with people Sunday who loved Teeters and heard heartfelt performances of some of the most beautiful Czech-related music you could ever hope to hear.
The big opening piece (clocking in at a little under an hour) was the unjustifiably neglected Dvořák Mass in D Major, Op. 86, also known as “The Luzany Mass,” accompanied by organ (Barbara Bruns) and timpani (Jonathan Hess). What a lovely introduction to this piece! In 1892 the composer came to Boston to conduct Cecilia in the Boston premiere of his Requiem, so there must have been an emotional connection that made the chorus sing so unusually well.
Dvořák wrote to his patron, Josef Hlávka, that he was “supremely pleased” with the work. “I think it will fully suit its purpose. It could be called: faith and love for God Almighty, and an expression of thanks for this great gift, for having been given the opportunity successfully to complete a work in praise of the Highest, and in honor of our art. Do not be surprised that I am so devout, but an artist who is not cannot achieve anything like this.”
Dvořák’s publisher, Novello, refused to publish the Mass in its original form for organ, insisting that the composer orchestrate it. He did so in 1892, and it was published in 1893. The version Boston Cecilia performed with the addition of timpani, was unpublished until 1963.
The concert’s delightful second half held spiritual, if not geographic, ties to “the Czech-American connection.” Leoš Janáček’s Otče náš “Lord Prayer” (1906) is extraordinary, alternating between tenor soloist (Charles Blandy) and chorus with a non-stop harp part and organ. The chorus masterfully negotiated the shoals of the Czech language (no simple thing. This former Czech student was impressed). From my harpist’s perspective, it was a huge, wonderful discovery, especially as exquisitely performed by Ina Zdorovetchi. Its pastoral feel and the occasional calm beauty evocated the Fauré Requiem.
Three solo songs of Gustav Mahler (born in Kaliště u Humpolce, now in the Czech Republic) followed. With soprano Jessica Cooper and Barbara Bruns, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” from Rückert-Lieder opened the set. Most pleasing about this tribute concert were the constantly changing textures; soloists alternating with the chorus, the different moods and timbres of piano, organ and harp. The singer tells of being lost to the world, and being dead to the world’s tumult. “And I rest in a quiet realm! I live alone in my heaven, In my love and in my song.” The overwhelming beauty of Barbara Bruns’s piano playing brought me close to tears. Bass Mark Andrew Cleveland sang “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?” and “Lob des hohen Verstandes” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn with humor and gusto.
The fun part continued with Bernstein’s popular Chichester Psalms in an excellent performance, thanks again to the two percussionists (the other was Robert Schulz) and Zdorovetchi, who played the harp part as well as I’ve ever heard it. The goosebump-inducing countertenor in the second movement was Roger Isaacs. The Hebrew choral enunciation in the Chichester Psalms was crisp and clear and their performance was convincing.
Bernstein’s 1965 sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic was intended to let him follow up the success of West Side Story with another Broadway musical. Neither the Kaddish Symphony with its anguish and despair nor the far more upbeat Chichester Psalms was the stuff of musical theater. From Nicholas White’s program notes, I also learned that the countertenor theme was adapted from the show that Bernstein never completed during his sabbatical, The Skin of Our Teeth, based on the play by Thornton Wilder. The men’s theme was adapted from material that was cut out of West Side Story. Amazing.
To cement this already deeply personal tribute to Donald Teeters, White chose to have the chorus conclude with “Goin’ Home,” which he had arranged from the Largo from the Dvořák “New World Symphony” and William Arms Fisher’s 1922 lyrics. It tells of returning through an open door, presumably to heaven. “Lots of folk gathered there, all the friends I knew.” Indeed, lots of Teeters’s folk were gathered to receive this extraordinary gift.