Saturday, November 22, 2008

Interview with Donald Teeters

The Boston Cecilia is presenting Bach's B Minor Mass tomorrow, Sunday, at 3 pm at NEC's Jordan Hall. This past Tuesday, I interviewed director Donald Teeters about The Boston Cecilia, Bach's B Minor Mass, and many other things as well.

Interview conducted at All Saints Parish, 1773 Beacon St., Brookline, MA on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008 at 4:00 pm. You can download the mp3 of the interview here.

A: So where were you actually born?
D: I was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma.
A: Chickasha...?
D: Chickasha, Oklahoma. My family, my parents had moved there when they were first married, about 1920 or so, and I was the last of five children. Three boys, two girls. My father worked for the railroad. And we were a church family, everybody except my father. And I became – I guess my first exposure to music, real exposure to music, was at church.
A: What does that mean, that you all went to church, or that you were more active in some other way?
D: We all went to church except my father. We went to church, Methodist church. A lot.
A: More than once a week?
D: Oh, yes. Sometimes three times.
A: Oh, OK. All right.
D: Sometimes Sunday morning, sometimes Sunday night. Sometimes, if there was a revival meeting going on in town we would go on Wednesday nights, too. And I became fascinated with the sound – I wasn't so much taken with the religion, I was taken by the sound of the organ, the pipe organ. And when I was a little kid I joined the junior choir, and we had this wonderful woman organist, just a great lady, Ethelynn Anderson. The only person I've ever known by that name. And she just had a wonderful attitude towards kids, and I just loved singing in the choir, and I was broken-hearted when my voice broke. [laughs] And that was in the 40's, early 40's. And we had some tragedies in the family – my oldest brother was killed in the war. Early on in the war, '41, I think. He was going to be a lawyer. And then in 1948 my other brother died of polio. There was a great epidemic sweeping the country in the late 40's. We lived on a farm at the time, and my brother Bill was working in the field with a good friend who was my age, Glenn. And they were drinking out of the same canteen during the day. And a few days later Glenn came down with polio, and died within a few days, and the day of his funeral my brother got sick, and a few days after – a week or so in an iron lung, he died. So, it was a great, great, great tragedy for our family and my parents and for all of us.
A: That's so fast.
D: So, partly as a result of that, my father had an opportunity to move up in a position in the union, the railroad union, to move to Kansas City. So we went there.
A: How old were you then?
D: Oh, eleven or twelve? And I started piano lessons. But piano was always a means to get to the organ. I just had a great fascination with the sound of the organ. It was just overwhelming. Indescribably exciting, you know. And I had a good piano teacher, a really good teacher, and so I made good progress, and at about age 15 I started taking organ lessons. I got a church job, my first church job was when I was still in high school. I had a wonderful organ teacher named Edna Scott Billings, who was the organist at the Episcopal cathedral in Kansas City. And there was a conservatory, an independent conservatory in Kansas City, the Kansas City Conservatory, and I started my college work there. It's now part of the University of Missouri system, I think it's still called maybe the Kansas City Conservatory, but part of the University of Missouri system. But anyway, it was independent then, and after a couple of years, my organ teacher said, “You know, you really should go somewhere else.” And I don't think she was throwing me out of her studio, I think she was encouraging me to go someplace else.
A: Was this the same organ teacher that you had before you went to the Conservatory?
D: Yes, yes. Edna. So I looked around, and I thought about going to Eastman, and I decided on Boston because I really wanted to be in a city. And there was something mystical about the idea of Boston, I can't describe it, but just, you know, old Yankee New England, I had read about that sort of thing, and the more I read about it, the more I decided I really wanted to come here. So I applied for the New England Conservatory, and got on a train and came here. And I tell you, as though it happened yesterday, I got off the train at Copley Square, I can't remember what the name of the station was, it wasn't called Back Bay Station, where I got off, and I walked upstairs, this was late in August, with my luggage, and I looked around, and I said (to myself, not out loud) “I'm home!” You know, I just love this place right now. And it was confirmed that day when I was riding on the trolley, later the same day, and two people behind me were having a vigorous argument about the Boston Symphony. On the trolley. And I said to myself, “That doesn't happen in Kansas City.” So I really am home. And this is fifty years later, and I still feel the same thing.
A: That's great. How old were you then, when you walked off the train?
D: Oh, probably nineteen. I came in as a junior, they accepted my credits. And I came here to study with a teacher, George Faxon, who's a famous organist. The organist for Trinity Church in Boston, and had been organist in various places. Wonderful recitalist, wonderful teacher and musician. And the day I arrived at the conservatory, I went in to sign up and register for my classes, and they announced that Mr. Faxon had left the conservatory to go to BU.
A: The same day.
D: Well, it happened a few days before that, but --
A: But that was the announcement.
D: The announcement, yes, made that day. And I was really crestfallen. But there were a couple of other choices. They were bringing in another teacher from Texas, a man named Donald Willing, and there was an older man on the faculty who had been there for many years named Carl McKinley, and I decided I would rather go with him. And I finished my undergraduate work with him, he was the organist at Old South Church. And had an interesting history, he had done all of his study, or a lot of his study, in Germany, and early in his career had been in New York, and had been the pit organist in the Capital Theater when Eugene Ormandy was the conductor of the pit orchestra in the Capital Theater. Eugene Ormandy eventually became the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. And Carl then came to Boston, and was actually primarily a conservatory history teacher, and was good – he was a good teacher. So I finished my undergraduate work with him, and then scouted around what kind of – well, I should tell you what happened. At the end of my first year here, I was sitting across the street from the conservatory having coffee in a cafeteria with one of my organ colleagues, a woman who was a graduate student. And the dean of the conservatory came over, sat down at the table, and turned to my colleague and said, “Do you have a job?” And she said, “Yes, I've just started a wonderful new job.” And so he got up from the table. And then he turned around and he said, “Well, Don, what about you? Do you have a job?” And I said, “Well, no!”
A: You had just finished your junior year?
D: I was in the end of my junior year, yes. And he said, “Well, there's a job in Wellesley. Episcopal Church,” he says, “It's my church.” His own church. And that very afternoon I went out and interviewed. I was scared to death. But also with a kind of confidence that young people have. And I interviewed the rector, and he just seemed like a father figure to me, and he hired me on the spot. This was the second-largest Episcopal church in the diocese of Massachusetts. I went in – and this was in the spring, I didn't actually start until the fall. A junior choir that had eighty or ninety kids in it. Some of whom were only four or five years younger – some of the girls were only four or five years younger than I. And a big adult choir, two big services on Sunday mornings, big, big, big job. And I was totally unqualified for it. But I just jumped in with both feet, and somehow or other – I was hired on a temporary, interim basis, and after three or four months, the rector called me into his office, and he said, “If you'd like to have this job, we'd like to have you.” So, you know, it was just a wonderful launching of that kind of career, a career in the church. So you know, since then, that was fifty years ago, and I've had two church jobs, that one and the one I'm in now.
A: How long were you in Wellesley?
D: Ten years. And it was good, because we built a new organ there, and it was – I learned quickly how to deal with kids. I could remember Ethelynn Anderson, I remember her attitude toward working with kids, and somehow or other I would just apply that, try to apply it, the same attitude towards the kids, kind of a trust that we're in this together kind of attitude, and it seemed to work. Because I was not experienced in any educational way, I didn't have any real experience in dealing with youngsters or with adults, for that matter. But it just worked out, and I don't know why, or how it worked out. Well, I know how it worked out, but I don't know why. [laugh] Anyway, it was a great ten years, and during that time --
A: So you got out of NEC and then what?
D: I investigated the possibility of going to another school to do maybe a research degree. I did some interviews, one at Harvard, one at BU. And I just – it didn't seem right, I couldn't find anything that seemed just right for me. So I started a graduate program at the conservatory in research, but I was not happy in that, either. But at that time I was studying with the organ teacher whom I had – who came to the Conservatory at the same time I did, Don Willing from Texas. And I studied with him and he was a wonderful teacher. And part of the revolutionary organ school of that late mid-twentieth century school of people who rediscovered tracker organs, and Baroque practices, and instruments that were a little more faithful to the repertoire that was played. And I studied with him for a couple of years. I met Dan Pinkham, and studied harpsichord with Dan Pinkham, and established a friendship that lasted until his death two years ago. So it was a happy experience in graduate school except for my major. So I just dropped out, I never finished the Masters degree. Along the way I got a teacher job in a school, a private girls' school, and through introductions was introduced to Alfred Nash Patterson, who conducted the Chorus Pro Musica in Boston. Which at that time was really the premiere chorus of the city.
A: What was its competition at the time?
D: Well, they sang – of course, Pro Musica sang lots of performances --
A: This was when? Fifties? Sixties?
D: This was actually 1964. But he had founded the group in 1948, I think it was. And they were --
A: Cecilia was still around?
D: Oh, Cecilia had been around for a century or so.
A: Right, but I mean, Cecilia was --?
D: But Cecilia was in dark times then. I can tell you a little bit about that history a little later on. But Patterson's chorus, the Chorus Pro Musica, was one of the main choruses that performed with the Boston Symphony. At that time also some of the school choruses performed – New England Conservatory chorus performed with the BSO, Harvard-Radcliffe chorus performed with the BSO. But I think one can say that the principal chorus that the BSO liked to use, because it was made of adults, and it was very stable in membership and quality, was the CPM. So I met Bud Patterson, he and I hit it off, and he said, “Come and be my assistant.” And later associate. So I worked with him for several years, and I had lots of chances to do conducting, and mostly played for rehearsals, played keyboard in concerts in various places.
A: When he initially asked you to come in, did he ask you just to be a keyboardist, or did he ask you to come on and be his assistant in all ways?
D: The initial invitation was to come in and be keyboardist, and then right away he gave me some conducting chores, and then I finally got the title. And I think I ended with the Associate Conductor title. My third year with him, it was announced that Thomas Dunn was going to come to Boston to really revolutionize the Handel & Haydn Society, to really turn it around and bring it into the twentieth century. Handel & Haydn Society had a rich, long history, but it had been a little indolent. Or, no, no – yes, I guess that's the word, for a number of years. Let's say it had fallen into...
A: Ruts?
D: Had gone into a rough patch. And so Tom came in, and the very day that the announcement was made, that Tom Dunn was going to be the conductor, there was going to be a press conference. I was down at the public library in Copley Square. Michael Steinberg, who was the reviewer for the Boston Globe at that time, saw me in the library, and he said, “Don, what are you doing these days?” And I said, “Well, I'm working with CPM, and I had a fellowship last summer at Tanglewood.” And he said, “Well, let me tell you,” and he told me that Tom Dunn – the announcement was going to be made shortly, and he said, “I want you to meet him.” So we went to wherever Tom was in the library, and Tom said, “Are you interested in the job with me?” And I said, “Well, of course I'd be very interested in that!” And he said, “Well, come and audition for me, we'll set it up, and see how that turns out.” So sometime later I was called in to audition for him, and he and I hit it off, and he hired me. So right away – it was just an enormous leap upward, because Tom was maybe the most formidable musician I've ever known. I think about him a lot right now, because he just died a few weeks ago. And he was a really major mentor in my life. And what he taught me was that your job as a performer is to try to reveal what the composer wrote. And to the extent that you vary from that, to the extent that you have a different ideal from that, a different concept of your role, you're wrong. And it was a very important lesson. I suppose I maybe understood it in some kind of instinctive way, perhaps, but I'd never had it quite articulated and put into practice to the extent that Tom did.
A: Did he have you conducting as well?
D: Yes.
A: Playing, or --? Same thing as CPM?
D: No, I did not do concerts – I don't think I conducted any concerts with H&H. Because it was structured differently. All their concerts were Symphony Hall concerts, or Jordan Hall concerts, and there was not a place for me. I did a lot of playing – continuo playing. Lots of rehearsal conducting, because Tom was still living in New York when he first came here. So I would take lots of – I often would take rehearsals. And I had to learn what every good assistant learns, I had to learn, in a sense, what – I had to imagine what Tom would do in every particular musical situation. Because if you're preparing a chorus for someone else, you really – it's not Don Teeters preparing for a performance, it's Don Teeters preparing for a performance by Tom Dunn. Which is also a good teaching experience, too. And that went on – the second year I worked with him, I was approached by the people – a very young group of people – from the Boston Cecilia Society. It then was called the Cecilia Society. Who somehow or other had heard of me, and approached me to see if I might be interested in taking over Cecilia. And I was at first very negative about it, because the Cecilia reputation was not good in those days. And I told them, “You know, I'm not interested in taking over a chorus that performs in church basements and suburbs all the time. If you folks are committed to wanting to get back into the center of the city, doing serious concerts with high standards, we can talk.” And they were all young people, and they were full of idealism, and full of enthusiasm about the potential. This whole group, young group in Cecilia had been brought in by my immediate predecessor, who himself was a young conductor, who was a music man at BU. And so he had kind of turned the place upside down, and auditioned out a lot of the deadwood, and had brought in these young people who were friends of his. So we had good conversations, and --
A: So he shook it up so that you could come in and --
D: Yes.
A: -- he started the transition for you.
D: He shook it up, and then I didn't have to do any of the cleaning up. So they hired me. And there we go.
A: Were any of that initial group – are any still chorus members?
D: Ah...there is one member who came in, I think, the second year I was conductor. But I still see – some of the other people who were part of that group I still see. Are still around, but not in Cecilia anymore. And so we – it was an adventure. We started off together. About that time I was invited to come and teach at the conservatory in the organ department.
A: And that was what year that Cecilia started?
D: I started with Cecilia in 1968.
A: Right, of course. Because last year...[note: was Don's 40th anniversary with Cecilia.]
D: Yes. And I started teaching at the conservatory in 1970, in the organ department. Teaching support courses. Conducting courses for students, for organists. And continuo courses, and church music courses, that sort of thing. A job that I held until they closed the department down in 2002, which I think was a terrible mistake.
A: Well, you're not alone.
D: But I'm back there now, teaching again, in the history department. And so, more and more, conducting became central to my life, and less and less a focus on organ performance.
A: How do you feel about that?
D: I'm very happy about it, because I was – truth be told, I was never a great virtuoso organist. Maybe I just didn't practice enough. But no, I love conducting, I really love conducting. It's a chance to make music without having to do any work!
A: Right, of course.
D: Which is not true, of course.
A: Right, I know.
D: I don't think I've ever worked harder than trying to conduct a great Handel oratorio, or one of the Bach Passions, or, as is happening just this week, the B Minor Mass. You might be interested in how we got interested in performing Handel, major works of Handel.
A: I was actually going to ask about that.
D: OK. When I was working with Tom Gunn, Tom had established quite a reputation in New York as a Handel specialist, particularly his performances of the Messiah. But also other works, I remember a wonderful performance of Alexander's Feast that I heard him do in New York with a professional chorus and orchestra. And so when I took over Cecilia, I began to do some Handel, to put some Handel into our programs, even in the very earliest seasons. And about 1980, the musical world was changing, the performing world was changing, particularly as it has to do with performing style of works, let's say pre-nineteenth-century performing style. There had been an early music movement afoot for quite a long time, but in the late seventies and by 1980 in Boston, at least, there were enough players around who were specializing in playing Baroque instruments, obviously copies of Baroque instruments, that one could actually put together a really first-class orchestra. And that was what I was waiting for. In the mid-seventies I was ready to go in that direction, but I didn't want to do it if it meant a sacrifice of standards and quality in performance. So around 1981, '82, we made the decision collectively in Cecilia that our pre-nineteenth-century works would be done with period instruments, if at all possible, and that has been consistently practiced, really, since then. We gave – [laughs] – we lucked in, in a sense, to what became, I'm almost certain, what was the first American performance of the St. John Passion of Bach with period instruments. And we got the first performance title, I guess you'd call it, because nobody had oboe da caccias. It's one of those weird instruments that just nobody had access to in America in those days. We found out, after we programmed the piece, that some guy in, I think, Michigan had made two of them, and a wonderful, very good old friend of mine, who's an early music instrument maker, Friedrich von Huene, a great, great master of recorder building – I went to Friedrich, I've known him for a long time, he's a member of my church, his family brought up in the church, I said to Friedrich, “What in the world does an oboe da caccia sound like?” And he says, “Well, rather like a saxophone, but out of tune.” [laughs] So we hired --
A: And that made you want to use them?
D: That made me want to use them even more! So we got these two oboe da caccias from Michigan, flew them in, and --
A: Well, that doesn't really go with the whole maintaining the standard of performance thing! How did that work out?
D: Well, Friedrich was joking.
A: OK. But how did they – I mean, it seems a little risky that the only two instruments in the entire continent would actually be decent.
D: They actually worked out, it worked out, they sounded fine, they had the proper nasal quality that I'm sure that Bach wanted. And we had good double-reed players in Boston, so they were well-played.
A: What about the brass?
D: The first pieces we did did not have any stratospheric brass parts, so no horn parts way up there, no trumpet parts up there. But there were players around even then, a few people who could handle these parts, some of the parts. And so we did the St. John Passion, and started doing Handel. You know, it's hard to put together these big Handel oratorios, because the scale is enormous. And I have established an absolutely inflexible policy about performing these pieces. I trust composers. So none of this picking and choosing movements here and movements there. Our policy about Handel, just as it is with Bach, is that you do the piece from beginning to end the way the composer intended it to be done, so far as we can figure out what the composer intended to be done.
A: But Handel changed his mind all the time.
D: Handel changed his mind all the time, but as you study Handel, you discover that Handel's first versions of most pieces, almost all of them, represent the best version. When he revived pieces, he would change things around to accommodate a different singer, or different circumstances, or who knows what other pressures, he sometimes did what seemed like pretty silly changes when he revived pieces. But his first versions are generally pretty reliable, and he was a brilliant dramatist. So if you just follow his lead, you know, he worked with good librettists for the most part. Sometimes his librettists get a bad rap. Generally, if a librettist gives him images to work with, trees, streamlets, romance, you know, all kinds of – clouds, storms, battles, love, if you give him those kind of images he writes music that's incredibly memorable and very beautiful, and perfectly apt for the context in which it's set. I discovered that very early, and so I'm just trying to be faithful to that. And I think it's paid off.
A: Would you put Messiah in that category of sticking to the original version?
D: No. There's so many different – I've only done Messiah once.
A: Do you have a preferred --?
D: Well, you know, a lot of people do the 1745 version, or the 1749 version, or, you know, this particular version that Handel did. But when Handel did any of those versions, what he was doing was adapting to the forces at hand. And so when we did it in the millenium year – first time I ever conducted it, and the first time that Cecilia in its 125 or 130 years had ever performed it, in the year 2000 – I decided, here are the singers I want to use, let's put together a version that has all the relevant continuity of Messiah, but that uses the versions that exploit these singers, to the best of their ability. And it worked wonderfully, I felt very good about it. I have no desire to perform Messiah over and over and over again, I think I would find that onerous. Maybe that's a weakness of character on my part, but I just think it would be very hard to bring any piece alive on a calendar basis, year after year after year after year. So, we've completed almost the complete cycle of the English language works. And I've had the great pleasure of teaching them. I'm now in the history department at the conservatory, alternate years teaching a Handel course, Handel's great English-language works, and in the alternate year the great choral works of Bach. Last year I taught Bach, and we only did the two Passions and the B Minor Mass, and that's a good way to fill up the whole semester. So teaching those courses has been a wonderful way helping me focus my ideas about Handel. Winton Dean, who was the great Handel scholar of the 20th century, wrote great, great analyses of Handel's works. He wrote a comparison between Bach and Handel. He said that of the two composers -- and there are great differences between them, but they're both great, great, great composers. Handel often sits in the shadow, because Bach is such a talented figure, but they were both great, but just in different ways. He said of the two composers, Bach will suffer less from a merely adequate performance, because Bach composes so fully that if you just perform the notes, everything that's there, certainly the important elements of what's there, will reveal themselves. Handel expects more of the performer. He leaves gaps, he leaves open places and his scores often just look more open. And so a bad singer singing Handel will do a lot more damage than a bad singer singing Bach.
A: Yes. Although some of the Bach arias are so hard that --
D: I said if you can sing it! An adequate performances, yes.
A: If you can sing it, yes.
D: But if you can't perform it, then, you know. But with Handel, a modestly gifted singer will not necessarily do justice to the piece, whereas a modestly gifted singer singing Bach, or a keyboardist or a violinist able to play the notes or sing the notes in tune will reveal the essential character of the work.
A: What are your favorite performances in general, of Cecilia or Handel specifically that if you – that if I ask that question, immediately spring to mind?
D: Oh, there's no question about it. Winton Dean says that of all Handel's oratorios, there are two that are totally worthless failures. He didn't say worthless – complete failures. Joseph and his Brethren and Deborah. And I read that twenty-five years ago, and I had a score of Joseph and his Brethren for twenty-some years, and every year I'd take it out and I'd look through the score, and I'd see this wonderful music, and then I'd go back and read Dean, who was so critical, and I love Dean, I'm very respectful of his evaluations, for the most part, but sometimes he was dead wrong. So in 1997, I decided, we've just got to do this. We've got to do Joseph. And it was one of the great triumphs. I was so thrilled with the result. The problem, and I think the problem with the piece in Dean's terms, was the continuity of the libretto. It's the story of Joseph and his brothers' abandonment and his rising to power in Egypt, and the story's very discontinuous in the oratorio. But Handel's audience were biblically very literate. So they could fill in those blanks. So when we perform it, we just – within the libretto we filled in the gaps in the story, so that the audience – these days, alas, audiences are not so Biblically literate --
A: Readings?
D: With just a narrative, telling what went on between this scene and that scene and the next scene. And for the audience, then, it was very user-friendly, finding the real continuity of the story. But the point of Joseph is that it's brilliant music. Just brilliant music. Wonderful music. Every note from beginning to end, and I had a wonderful cast, some of the best Handel singers in the world. Two particularly, Sharon Baker, great Handel singer, and Jeffrey Gall, a counter-tenor who was, you know, a great heroic counter-tenor for the last thirty years, who is no longer singing counter-tenor, but he's singing bass, and he has a brilliant bass voice. All of us are quite amazed and surprised at that. So he's singing in the B Minor Mass this coming weekend with us. It's amazing. He's making his Boston debut as a bass.
A: Wow, that's very exciting. And Deborah? Similar story?
D: I did Deborah...Dean was more or less right about Deborah. [laughs] But he was just dead wrong about Joseph, and that's a shame, because that oratorio has just lain fallow for a long, long time. It has been performed – a wonderful performance in England a couple of years before we did it, and then my recording of that is one that I play all the time, I just love the piece. I always use that in my Handel course to demonstrate some of the Handelian ideals. For instance, one aria...There's a big question about embellishment and cadenzas in music of that whole period. And people have written a lot, contemporaries wrote a lot about what a cadenza should consist of, mostly on one breath. Well, at the beginning of one of these arias for the soprano, there's a great introduction, an orchestral ritornello, and then the singer sings a phrase, and then launches into a cadenza that goes on for – that no one could possibly sing in one breath. It goes on for a minute or so. First of all, at the very beginning of the aria, that's not where cadenzas normally belong. Brahms did the same thing in the Second Piano Concerto. And it's written out, you know, it's written out in a style that's very elaborate, and really exploits everything that the singer can do. So it just sort of shoots down that whole argument that's been proposed so resolutely by so many people, that cadenzas should be confined and clearly contained within a rational, single-breath kind of concept. Wrong. Just wrong in that sense. And the reason he wrote it out, I think, is because English singers were not really gifted at doing cadenzas. They were not so gifted, certainly, as his Italian opera singers, who were trained to do that sort of thing from the very beginning. So it's been Handel and Bach, mainly, for my career, and I love contemporary music, we've done lots of Benjamin Britten, I adore Britten.
A: I was going to ask about that. When did that start to be a part of what Cecilia does? I mean, now it's sort of very...
D: My very first concert with Cecilia, we did the Hymn to St. Cecilia of Britten. And we did the Stravinsky mass. And we did another piece that I've tried to forget, but I won't even mention that. [laughs] Another contemporary piece. And Britten has been a consistent factor in our programming ever since. I'm so envious of Cantata Singers this year doing a whole season of Britten in every concert. I'd love to do that sort of thing myself. And there's hardly any piece of Britten that I wouldn't want to perform. I've seen the operas, and I've seen them in various places in the world. I saw Peter Grimes in Budapest sung in Hungarian, and Turn of the Screw in...where was it? I think in Prague. And you know, no matter where people are singing or what language they're singing in, his operas, if you know them, reveal wonderful qualities.
A: So when did you start doing other contemporary music besides Britten? Because now it's become – I mean, the two years I was here, there were contemporary concerts both years.
D: Yes, well, Britten is not even contemporary anymore. He's a standard composer. I've just always been interested in – I think it's part of a performer's responsibility to perform music of their own time. We've done important performances of a lot of pieces. We've had a very good relationship with Scott Wheeler, who is, I just think, one of the most brilliant of the young generation of composers. We recorded his one-act opera The Construction of Boston a year or so ago, and I just heard yesterday that it's got through the first cut of the Grammys. So it's now – I just spilled wine all over myself. It's all right.
A: I'll get a towel. It was just that exciting!
D: It's just made the first cut, and now it just needs a nomination, that's all. But it wasn't eliminated in that first cut. So that's good news. We've done other pieces, we've commissioned pieces from Scott. We've done lots of music of Dan Pinkham. Dan Pinkham was a good friend of mine, as I've told you, he was my first harpsichord teacher. And he was a very, very good supporter of me throughout my career, and of Cecilia, he's written several pieces for Cecilia. James Woodman is also a good friend, we've premiered pieces of his. And others.
A: I'm going to slide back to the conducting. How did you – did you study conducting at any point, or did you purely learn by doing, and if you learned by doing, how did you then develop a method of teaching other people how to conduct?
D: Well, I wish I could answer that. [laughs] I did study one year, I did study orchestral conducting at the conservatory with Frederik Prausnitz, who was at that point the conservatory orchestra conductor. I've never studied choral conducting. And I count that a blessing. My experience is that choral conductors learn lots of tricks, lots of devices, let's call them, for affecting certain – creating certain effects with a chorus. But often the techniques that they use are not transferable to other contexts, to an instrumental context. And I believe that conducting should be a unified art. In fact, I believe schools should not offer separate choral conducting/orchestral conducting majors, I think that if you're going to be a conductor, you should be equally equipped in both.
A: Do you think rehearsing should be a unified art?
D: Sure, why not? Why not? Because if you learn how to deal with instruments, and you at the same time learn how to deal with voices, then you learn how to apply vocal qualities to instrumental playing, and you learn how to apply instrumental techinque and discipline to singing. Because the two are very much interrelated, it seems to me. Instrumentalists do not use words, and vocalists have to perform according to what the breath can accommodate, and what they can do in terms of articulating words, and both of those qualities can be transferred, it seems to me, should be transferred from one to the other. Instrumentalists should learn how to phrase as singers phrase, should learn how to give the sense of breath to their music. Singers should learn how to observe the proprieties of precision, which sometimes do get sacrificed. Not always, of course, and there are always exceptions, and there are wonderful choral conductors, and there are wonderful instrumental conductors who don't know a thing about choral conducting. But I think that's a shame. I think if you have the skill to lead people in musical pursuits, it should be a skill that allows you to work with both with equal facility. Conductors who are lucky are the ones who come up through the opera house, because they do learn how to work with solo singers and with choruses at the same time they're learning how to work with orchestras. I don't know, it's not a hard and fast rule, but I just think that I would like to see choral conductors beating four in a definable pattern, and then teaching their singers how to respond to four rather than giving all kinds of finger gestures and lifts of the elbow, and --
A: Although it is very arguable that there are many orchestral conductors who --
D: Who do exactly the same thing.
A: -- you can't identify a pattern to save your life, so...
D: Well, that's true, too. Touché.
A: So when you teach, what do you – what's one of the first things you do in a first semester course, what are the basics that you want somebody to come away with? Pattern?
D: When I've taught choral conducting, I've spent one semester on stand-up conducting, according to traditional conducting techniques. Patterns, using patterns in ways that anybody could interpret, any musician who can follow a conductor can follow. I think that beats should generally draw back to the center of the body, that the point of most beats should be at the center of the body. And so even though you go way far afield in gesture, that you come back to give the ictus or tactus, you know, close to the center of the body.
A: And where on the up-and-down line?
D: Well, it can be various places, but close to the body. Because it depends somewhat on visual aspects, you know, because somebody's way off in the distance you're trying to give a cue to. And then the second semester – well, I was primarily teaching conducting from the keyboard. So I spent one semester teaching stand-up conducting techniques, thinking in terms of singing, and then second semester I took people at the keyboard, and tried to translate that concept to the keyboard. And I don't think anybody else was teaching that course anywhere in the world. But I was doing it for twenty or so years at the conservatory. But you know, you learn how to use the head in that case. Which is a perfectly – you can do – as a stand-up conductor you can use the head in a way to show pulse without using a whole lot of energy. I try to keep most conducting close to the body, I try to tell students if you conduct a Matthew Passion with the arm-waving you're doing, your arm is going to fall off by the time you get halfway through the second part. You have to learn how to conduct so that you use the gestures you need, but don't have to carry the weight of the arm all the time, extended from the body. I'm probably not explaining that very well, but it's a technique that one has to practice and practice and practice to learn, so that you use gesture, and the gestures you need, but you use it in ways that don't keep your arms always high and always extended. Unless you're incredibly strong.
A: Are there conductors that you like?
D: Tons of them.
A: Reel off a few names.
D: Well...
A: Start with orchestral conductors.
D: I'm absolutely infatuated with James Levine. I just – what he can do with – talk about minimal gestures. He just sits there, and you can hardly see what his hand is doing, but it communicates vast amounts of information. And I think that's what I'm talking about, the economy of conducting.
A: Kleiber, then?
D: Hm?
A: Kleiber? Carlos?
D: I don't know, I've never seen him conduct. I've heard recordings, but I've never seen him conduct. So I'm trying to make it both visual and aural. I thought Ozawa was a wonderful communicator of what he wanted. My favorite BSO conductor – well, not my favorite – when I was young, Charles Munch was the conductor of the BSO, and I loved the exhuberance and the passion he brought to music. I was still very young then, and I went to the symphony every Saturday night for 24 concerts for $48. That was a long time ago. And sometimes those concerts would be so exciting you would just want to leap off the balcony, because he just sort of could unleash himself, and in the process of doing that unleash the orchestra to do really extraordinary things. The trade-off for that is that sometimes if he was a little bored, that boredom could translate to the players and to the audience. But the exciting times were as exciting as any music-making I'd ever heard. So, I'm trying to think...I was not a great enthusiast for Bernstein.
A: I was going to ask about him, and I thought you might not be.
D: Yes. His gestures seemed so over-the-top, so --
A: He also doesn't seem to adhere to the do-what-the-composer-wants-all-the-time rule.
D: Well, yes, that's true, too. But I always felt that he was doing more than was necessary to get the effect that he was seeking, simply wanting to get. Who am I to criticize anybody, though? People who justified themselves by making a great career as conductors.
A: I only have a little bit of time and I want to make sure we talk about B Minor, so tell me what's going to happen on Sunday, and who's singing.
D: Well, we call it the B flat minor Mass.
A: And have you done it before?
D: I've done it at least three times, 1983, 1990, and now.
A: And only with Cecilia?
D: I've only done it with Cecilia. It's a wonderful chance to revisit in my maturity a piece that I, of course, have loved all my life. And I'm beginning to think I understand what it's all about. And I'm blessed to have a wonderful cast of soloists involved, the chorus is singing splendidly, we have great players who, you know – some of the best instrumentalists in the world live right here in Boston.
A: Period orchestra for this?
D: Yes. In a wonderful hall for it, Jordan Hall is a great place to perform the piece. And I've been experimenting with tempi a lot, and having just taught the piece last year, I've got some new ideas about tempi and about pacing, about how to tie movements together. I think a lot of conductors don't – the B Minor Mass was never intended, as far as I can tell, ever to have been part of an official church liturgy. It's kind of an idealized mass. It was the last piece Bach wrote, it was in the last year of his life. And it's put together from materials from his whole life, adapted to new purposes, adapted to new text, slightly recomposed, in some cases substantially recomposed, to be put together, to form all the movements of a classic Roman mass. It's a Latin mass written by a German Lutheran, and it is indescribable in terms of its power and its effect on everybody who listens to it seriously, and everyone who performs it. If I have time, I'll tell you one little thing I did in my class last year. We had been demonstrating elements of the mass using very modern performances. There's a wonderful Japanese recording by a man named Suzuki who's made just a great specialty of Bach works, and he does wonderful performances of Bach, and a wonderful recording of the B Minor Mass. And Andrew Parrott has a recording, and other people have had recent recordings – we used those to demonstrate. Late in the course, I decided that I had been kind of prejudicing these kids towards the kind of style that's in fashion right now, when in fact Bach has been performed consistently since the early nineteenth century, early to mid-nineteenth century. And that the style has radically changed. So one day in class I brought forth a recording by Eugen Jockhum, the great European conductor, a recording, I think, from the 1960's, early 1960's or late 50's. And I said, “Now, I'm not playing this recording for you, this movement for you to giggle about, because it's so old-fashioned. I'm playing it for you so you understand how beautiful and how impressive, how magnificent, Bach can seem, can be, even in a style that's different from the direction that we go, mostly go in these days.” I can't remember what movement I played, but it was ravishing in its beauty and its power. And the point being that every generation has to rediscover Bach on their own terms. Who knows what the style will be 25 years from now, I don't have a clue. But I know what it was 50 years ago, and I know that the best performances then will always be wonderful performances, as are the best performances now. Built, constructed, and performed according to an entirely different concept of how the piece is – we think we've got all wisdom, but nobody does. Nobody was there. And in fact, Bach never performed the piece, so.
A: Well, I want to wrap up by – have you ever seen the TV show on Bravo “Inside the Actor's Studio?”
D: Yes, I have.
A: So are you familiar with the questionnaire that comes at the end?
D: Oh, I've forgotten.
A: OK, well, unfortunately I forgot to bring it with me. But I'm going to ask you from those ten questions as I remember. And I'm going to throw in a few of my own.
D: OK.
A: What is your favorite word?
D: Peace.
A: What is your least favorite word?
D: War.
A: What is your favorite sound? Non-musical sound.
D: Breeze, a gentle breeze. In the trees.
A: What's your least favorite, in quotes, not musical sound?
D: Fingernail on a blackboard.
A: What's your favorite word? Oh, no, wait, I already said that.
D: No you didn't.
A: No, I said word, and you said peace.
D: Oh, OK. I've got another favorite word, though.
A: Oh, what's your other favorite word?
D: Cucumber.
A: Oh, that's a good one.
D: There was a movie years ago, a Disney movie, and I can't remember the name of the actress – Estelle Winwood. She said the word – when asked the question – she said, in an English accent, “Cyoo-cum-bah.” And I've always thought, that really is a beautiful word.
A: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
D: Oh, I'd like to drive trains.
A: What profession other than your own would you not like to attempt?
D: I think anything involving physical labor, outdoor labor.
A: Name a favorite composer.
D: Handel.
A: Name a not-so-favorite composer.
D: Oh, that's not fair.
A: I know. But that's what makes drama. Is dirt.
D: I know, I know. Oh, oh, oh.
A: They can be dead, it's OK!
D: I was thinking of someone who's alive, but I don't want to say that name. I think Gounod.
A: Interesting.
D: And I don't actually really mean that, because there's some Gounod I really like.
A: But as a body of work.
D: As a body of work.
A: What's your favorite curse word?
D: Curse word? Can I say it?
A: Yes!
D: OK, fuck.
A: Great. I know there's two other questions in the questionnaire, but I'm not remembering what they are. So the last one is, if heaven exists, what do you want to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
D: Welcome home. Or, what music would you like to hear when you get here?
A: Or who would you like to meet?
D: Or even better, what music would you like to conduct when you get here?

[End of interview]


  1. Allegra,

    You did a wonderful job with this interview! Thank you so much for sharing it with us!


  2. Anonymous1:32 PM

    Excellent! Of course you had a great subject! Lots of new info and insights... and no real Palin- drones!