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Donald Teeters, 77; conductor revitalized Boston Cecilia

Mr. Teeters was deft at identifying and then supporting young vocal talent on the rise.

BOSTON CECILIA/FILE 2010

Mr. Teeters was deft at identifying and then supporting young vocal talent on the rise.

Certain cultural organizations can easily become endangered species, as the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once contended in the pages of this newspaper. He was writing about the city’s historic choral societies, places where amateur singers gathered and worked assiduously to offer professional-level performances of the great monuments of the choral repertoire. “The product that we present,” Gould wrote in 1991, “belongs among the proudest and most enduring legacies of the human mind and heart.”

Many older choral societies have folded over time, become fully professionalized, or lowered their artistic standards, but the Boston Cecilia, in which Gould proudly sang as a second bass, has been for the last four decades a distinguished exception. And credit for its revitalization and present-day flourishing goes almost entirely to conductor Donald Teeters.

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Director of the Boston Cecilia for 44 years, from 1968 to 2012, he took the reins of a venerable but struggling chorus and led it through a period of renewal and artistic achievement that won him the gratitude of local audiences, musicians, and critics alike.

Mr. Teeters, who also served as music director at All Saints Parish in Brookline and taught on the faculty of New England Conservatory, had suffered from heart disease and died in his East Boston home, where he was found Aug. 14. He was 77.

“He was always going for beauty of the utmost depth, with the singers and with the players,” recalled Cecilia’s associate conductor Barbara Bruns, who worked closely with Mr. Teeters for more than four decades. “He was not controlling, but he had this demanding level behind the scenes. He was the conductor holding everything together, but he had that kind of trust in the artistry of each musician. His kindness and his personality also just made you want to make music. It was a really rare quality.”

Founded in 1876, the Boston Cecilia had a strong foundation on which to build, including a historic relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a first US performance of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.” But by the mid-20th century it had fallen on hard times, beset by artistic, financial, and management problems.

Over the first two decades of his tenure, Mr. Teeters reversed that trend by raising artistic standards, tackling important repertoire that was not being heard elsewhere, and insisting that the chorus perform only at venues at the center of the city’s musical life.

“He built us into what we are now,” said Elizabeth Riely, Cecilia’s co-president and a soprano in the group. “He cared so much about the music himself and had the highest standards of musicianship and thorough knowledge of the composers and their works, and he expected that from us.”

Mr. Teeters specialized in English choral music, and Bach was also a touchstone of his repertoire. “Bach’s supreme genius,” he wrote in a 2008 program note, “speaks through and to a flawed humanity with a voice that is ageless and inextinguishable.”

But Mr. Teeters was best known for his pioneering advocacy of the oratorios of Handel. Over the years he led a remarkable 19 oratorios, in the process helping to strengthen Boston’s standing as a center of the modern Handel revival. Most notably, under his guidance Cecilia was the first local chorus to perform Baroque repertoire with period instruments, a trend that is now all but ubiquitous.

During his time with Cecilia, Mr. Teeters also proved deft at identifying, and then loyally supporting, young vocal talent on the rise, working closely with a cohort of accomplished singers that included Nancy Armstrong, Jeffrey Gall, William Hite, James Maddalena, Robert Honeysucker, and Donald Wilkinson, several of whom also appeared as soloists with Mr. Teeters’s church choir.

His interests ranged far beyond the Baroque, as he led the US premiere of Benjamin Britten’s “Phaedra” and the world premieres of works by Daniel Pinkham, James Woodman, and Scott Wheeler, who was Cecilia’s composer-in-residence.

“Most choruses sing for love of their conductor,” Wheeler said. “Don Teeters had a genius for inspiring that love. In our many rehearsals together, I always marveled at how he got such an exquisite and luscious choral sound.”

The Rev. Richard Burden, rector of All Saints Parish, observed a similar dynamic in Mr. Teeters work at the church. “Don had a great ability to work with all kinds of folks and bring them together,” Burden said. “He sort of instinctively understood music as a ministry, in the sense that it serves the community, it connects people to one another, to the chorus of all who have gone before, and to the great mystery which many of us call God.”

Mr. Teeters grew up on a farm in Chickasha, Okla., and lived in Kansas City, Mo., before coming to Boston in 1956 to study organ at New England Conservatory, where his teacher was Carl McKinley.

“The moment I arrived in Boston, I knew I was at home,” he told the Globe in 1991. “On the subway, I overheard an argument about a performance by Boston Symphony, and that was something which simply could not have happened in Kansas City!”

After completing his studies, Mr. Teeters took assistant conducting posts with the Chorus pro Musica and, later, with the Handel and Haydn Society, where he worked with music director Thomas Dunn during a critical moment in the growth of the early music movement. Dunn was transforming local perceptions of Handel’s music by peeling away Romantic-era excesses, reducing the size of the massive choruses once used to perform this music, and rethinking inherited traditions of ponderous tempos.

The changes came as a revelation to Mr. Teeters, who had not previously felt any sympathy for Handel’s music.

While modernizing the Handel and Haydn Society’s approach to Baroque repertoire, Dunn stopped short of employing a period-instrument orchestra because he thought the level of instrumental expertise was not yet high enough. All that had changed by the early 1980s, when Mr. Teeters, by then well established at the helm of the Boston Cecilia, began conducting works by Bach on instruments the composer would have recognized.

In 1981, he led the first period-instrument performance of the “St. John Passion” in the United States. His first period Handel oratorio also came in 1981, and many more followed. Reviewing “Saul” in 1993, the Globe’s critic Richard Dyer hailed the Teeters-Cecilia partnership. “Long may their joint Handel series continue,” he wrote. “It has become an important part of our musical lives together.”

His recordings include works by Wheeler, Pinkham, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Britten. Since retiring from Cecilia in 2012, Mr. Teeters had remained active, conducting Opera Brittenica’s production of Britten’s “The Burning Fiery Furnace” as recently as May. He also contributed to a forthcoming history of the Handel and Haydn Society.

A funeral service for Mr. Teeters will be held at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 3 in All Saints Parish, and the church’s choir will perform a musical memorial on Nov. 2. The Boston Cecilia will dedicate its first concert of the season, on Oct. 19 at All Saints Parish, to the memory of Mr. Teeters.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.
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