Donald Teeters,
2012 Daniel Pinkham Award Recipient

Coro Allegro presented the fifth Daniel Pinkham Award to Donald Teeters, who retired as Music Director of The Boston Cecilia in his 44 th season there. Mr. Teeters is in the forefront of historically oriented New England musicians, and was the first Boston choral conductor to engage players of period instruments for pre-19th century works. He received New England Conservatory’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2004 and, in 2005, Donald Teeters received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alfred Nash Patterson Foundation.

As Coro Allegro is presenting you with our fifth annual Daniel Pinkham Award at our winter 2012 concert on March 25, let me begin by asking about your friendship with Daniel Pinkham. How did you get to know him?

Donald Teeters: When I was a student at New England Conservatory in the late '50s/early '60s, I studied harpsichord with Dan Pinkham, so that was my first exposure to him. And I was just blown away, not only by his musical sophistication, but also by his incredible intellect. He really just knew everything. Any historical question about an 18 th-century issue, you would pose the question, and he didn’t have to go look it up, he would just give you the answer. Very, very impressive. From that, a friendship developed, and collegiality. When I was an organist in Wellesley in the early 1960s, they had put in a new organ, and I asked Dan if he'd help me put together a program that involved instruments and organ, and he said, "Sure, may I conduct?" I said, "Of course!" From there, a whole series of interconnections ensued: my performing his music, his making suggestions to me about repertoire that would be congenial with works that he knew I was trying to do. And social time as well, with groups of like-minded, "crazy" people. It was just a lovely relationship.

Then, he liked the Cecilia sound, and so just a few years before he died, he said, "You know, there’s a piece I want to write." And I said, "Let us raise the money for a commission," and he said, "No, in this case I want to give it to Cecilia." Not surprisingly it was a fine piece. During the early '90s we did an all-Pinkham recording for Koch International, but not of that piece, as it hadn't been composed yet. The New England Composers Recording Project was behind it and Dan was the organizing agent. The three choral works of his that we did record were the Wedding, Advent, and Christmas Cantatas. So, it was a long association, and a productive one from my standpoint, and apparently a happy one from his point of view. In all, it was a long and meaningful professional relationship, as well as a personal, cordial relationship.

When you began your career, you were a pioneer of period instrument performance in Boston with Cecilia and in your other professional activities.

DT: Well, I was one of the first choral conductors [involved with period instrument performance]. There was a lot of early music going on, Dan Pinkham was at the beginning of that movement as well as other people during the '50s and early '60s. In 1967, the Handel & Haydn Society hired Thomas Dunn as their conductor to come from New York and take over and modernize the group. Tom hired me as his assistant. And his reputation in New York had been based on his revolutionary performances of 18 th century music, Bach and Handel. Stylistically, his were very sophisticated performances for that period. He did not use period instruments but he broke the ground in trying to break from Romantic-era-style performances of 18 th-century music. And I learned a lot from him. The year after he hired me I was hired by Cecilia to take over that group (the two positions overlapped for two or three years). So when I went to Cecilia, I said, "You know, I’m very interested in doing performances that can come as close as possible to what a composer might have intended, as far as we can find that out." You can’t always get there, and I never use the word "authentic" because there is no such thing as an authentic performance of an 18 th-century work. First of all, we have electricity, and we have steam heat, environmental things that are different that would have influenced performances…. we don’t play by candlelight.

Cecilia at that time was overall a very young group in age. My immediate predecessor had gone through the process of trying to "modernize." He had done a lot of "auditioning out" of people of my current age. And so I essentially had a young group, mainly recently out of college, and bright and intelligent and aggressive, who didn’t know the things that can’t be done. And even then when I did 18 th-century pieces I used modern instruments, because I didn’t feel that the city was yet "fully staffed," so to speak, with period-instrument musicians of equal competence. But by the 1980s, I thought that situation had changed, so in 1980, '81 or so, we decided that we would then use period-instrument orchestras for all of our pre-19th century pieces. And the first piece we did, I think, was Handel’s Semele.And it proved to be accurate, because we could find instrumentalists who played those instruments in a sympathetic style, willingly and happily, in a key that they were not used to, as everything was played a semi-tone (half step) lower than with modern instruments [Note: The de facto standard for Baroque instruments was A=415 Hz, coincidentally one semitone below the modern standard of A=440 Hz]. And we were all in this together. But then there were other early-music influences around the city as well. Craig Smith at Emmanuel, David Hoose, Tom Dunn, and later conductors at Handel & Haydn; even if they didn't all go to period instruments, they were supporting the idea of trying to create stylistically appropriate performances. So that’s sort of the Guide Star of my career, and from the '80s on, it worked quite well for Cecilia, I think, and sort of established a niche. I’m not sure that that niche is any better than anybody else’s, but it was a niche that fit us.

Did this gradual move to period instruments for performances of 18th-century works lead you to your comprehensive coverage of Handel’s oratorios over your career?

DT: You might say that that was more or less just accidental. We started, and we said, "Oh, well, there are lots of these [Handel oratorios]," and so the next year we did two. And then one of our members came up with a financial offer for five years to contribute a substantial amount of money so that we could continue to program Handel. This was never intended to be a comprehensive survey; it just turned into it. That member's financial contribution, which lasted longer than five years, was what made it possible. And what also made it possible is that there were all these better and better [early-music] instrumentalists and soloists who were sympathetic with that style and together we were building what I like to call a Boston Handel style, which also included Bach and all those 18 th-century composers. It was an interesting adventure. Sort of serendipitous, I guess you’d say, how it turned into something that was comprehensive. There are now only two major oratorios of Handel that we have not done. So, it’s kind of impressive in retrospect for being unplanned. (laughter)

Turning back to the two-year collaboration that Coro Allegro and The Boston Cecilia took up in 2003 and 2004, what memories do you have of that? This seemed like a very positive experience for both groups.

DT: You know, it was a terrific experience, both years of it. I didn’t know how congenial the two groups would be with each other. But there was never any problem at all that I'm aware of, and I was pretty sensitive to whether there were any social problems, any problems with mixing up, of finding a happy route towards making music together. Cecilia, after all, in its early days was about as stuffy a social organization as you could find anywhere. But that was not the case by the time we got into the 21 st century. So [the collaboration] was a very happy situation, and musically, I thought it was diverse. I conducted an all-Brahms program the first year, Ein deutsches Requiem and other things, and then David conducted a mixed program centered around the Poulenc Gloria the second year, an entirely different kind of repertoire. But both perfectly suited, it seemed to me, for the resources. Maybe I tend to be overly cautious about lots of things, but I was constantly surprised and pleased at how congenial the whole process was, both socially and musically.

What are your future plans -- musically, personally, professionally?

DT: I'm kind of up in the air…. I’m still teaching at New England Conservatory, and will continue to. I teach Bach and Handel courses at the Conservatory, which is right up my alley. And I'm going to continue at All Saints Church in Brookline for at least another couple of years. So, after that, you know, I don’t have a clue (laughter). I don’t knowwhat I’m going to do when I grow up (laughter). So, a little scary, but also kind of exciting to know that I can maybe have some time when I can just decide tomorrow morning that I want to fly to Africa, or that I want to go back to Japan. And just do it! I love to travel. As soon as I unpack from any trip then I want to pack again and go off, but circumstances don’t allow for that, either financially or in terms of scheduling…. I go to Europe a lot, and I just love the environment there, and I may in fact live there for part of a year maybe now and then. As long as I live long enough! There’s still a lot to be done, but it’s just not too well defined yet.

Well, it seems so appropriate to have you be present for our all-Handel concert on March 25.

DT: Let me tell you, I'm very excited about it. I'm so excited to hear Handel any time. That David chose that program at a time when I'm going to be honored is just a special, special pleasure for me, and I can hardly wait to hear the concert, and to get the award, too!

-- Interview conducted by Coro Allegro tenor Tom Regan