NEC Mourns the Death of Donald Teeters
Conductor, Organist, Handel Expert, Faculty Member was one of Boston’s Important Musical Figures for Four Decades
New England Conservatory is mourning the death of organist and conductor Donald Teeters, an alumnus from the class of 1958, who was one of Boston’s most influential musical citizens for more than four decades. Teeters, who taught on the NEC faculty beginning in 1971, was found dead in his apartment—victim of an apparent heart attack—on August 14. He would have been 78 on September 2.
Recently returned from a vacation in Prague where he made pilgrimage visits to the graves of Dvorak, Smetana, and other artists, Teeters had earlier this summer celebrated his retirement after 47 years as the much-loved and admired Organist and Director of Music for All-Saints Parish in Brookline. He was also conductor emeritus of the Boston Cecilia, having retired as music director in 2012 after an illustrious 44 years. He was widely credited with taking that venerable institution from artistic doldrums to a position of eminence, through his advocacy of historically informed performance practice (Cecilia was one of the first ensembles to perform with period instruments); his revival of many virtually unknown Handel oratorios, masques and odes; his sensitive performances of Bach Passions and other choral works; and his illuminating interpretations of contemporary works, particularly those by Benjamin Britten, but also those of local composers such as Scott Wheeler and Daniel Pinkham. As recently as May, he had conducted Opera Brittenica’s production of Britten’s The Burning Fiery Furnace.
Recognizing his many achievements, NEC awarded Teeters an Outstanding Alumni Award in 2003. He was also the recipient of Coro Allegro’s Daniel Pinkham Award in 2012 and the Alfred Nash Patterson Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
Born in Chickasha, Oklahoma in 1936, the youngest of five children, Teeters was smitten early on by the powerful timbre of the church organ. “It was just overwhelming, indescribably exciting,” he told interviewer and choral director Allegra Martin in a 2008 blog post. As a boy, Teeters and his family moved to Kansas City where he began piano lessons and later organ lessons. His teacher was organist at the Episcopal cathedral and taught on the Kansas City Conservatory faculty. But after two years, Teeters transferred to NEC, where he studied with Carl McKinley, Don Willing, Daniel Pinkham, and Frederik Prausnitz. It was the beginning of a life-long love affair with Boston.
Apparently the affection was reciprocated. In a job recommendation for Teeters, Willing wrote with great prescience:
Donald Teeters is one of the most sensitive and most talented musicians I know. His musical inquisitiveness keeps him deeply interested in the various aspects of music to an unusual degree; I doubt that he will ever stop learning or growing, musically. He seems also to have a happy faculty for communicating this interest with others. He is extremely well liked by all who know him; he is a real person. He should go far as a teacher—his interest, enthusiasm, knowledge and personality are all in his favor.
Not surprisingly, the keen young organ student leapt quickly into Boston’s choral conducting/early music network and became assistant and then associate to Alfred Nash Patterson at the Chorus Pro Musica. Three years later, he was invited to become associate conductor to Thomas Dunn, who was leading an artistic revolution at the Handel and Haydn Society. He took church jobs at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Wellesley, where, still green and inexperienced, he led large junior and adult choirs for two services on Sunday mornings. Subsequently, he took over the comparable position at All-Saints Brookline, where he remained until this past June.
When the Cecilia Society (as it was known then) invited him to become music director, Teeters was initially hesitant. Like H+H when Thomas Dunn took over, the Cecilia was at a low artistic ebb. He insisted that the group be willing to expand its horizons, to return to the center of city musical life rather than performing in basements and suburbs, and to tackle more ambitious repertory. The chorus agreed and he immediately began introducing works by Handel and Bach, as well as selected contemporary pieces by composers he admired. By 1980, he and the Cecilia had agreed to use period instruments for any pre-19th Century music they performed and that included a Bach St. John Passion, which Teeters believed was the first American performance with period orchestra. The performance utilized two oboe da caccias that had to be imported from Michigan and entrusted to local wind players who had never played the instrument before.
Teeters’ musical curiosity, interpretive passion, artistic integrity, calculated risk-taking, and ability to instill confidence in his performers resulted in a deep affection for the conductor and consistent critical praise in the media.
Mezzo soprano D’Anna Fortunato, a fellow NEC alum and faculty member, fondly remembers performing many times with Teeters beginning as a young professional:
My very first professional engagement in my mid 20's came as a result of Don hiring me to sing as soloist with the Cecilia Society in the very thorny but satisfying a cappella work -In The Beginning by Aaron Copland. I'm not sure how he could have had faith that a fledgling could sing something so challenging and do it well, but he gave me enormous confidence by doing so! He always challenged me by throwing me leading Soprano solo assignments mostly in unknown Handel dramatic oratorios- Athalia and Hercules amongst them- that had me quaking in my boots. Those musical times with Don, though, were some of the most rewarding I have ever spent and created in me an ongoing passion to sing more Handel, leading ultimately to my involvement in nine premiere Handel opera CD's .I sense that he continued that tradition of hiring and mentoring young talented soloists long into his tenure with the Cecilia Society.
A 1993 review in the Boston Globe, by Richard Buell, offers a typical critical response to Teeters’ concerts:
Thematic programs are a specialty of Boston Cecilia concerts under their music director Donald Teeters. Often the effect is of being under the wing of a very enthusiastic tour guide who wants you, before you go, to take in yet another artistic monument that ought to be part of every civilized person’s mental furniture. If there’s a fault in this, it’s the forgivable one of overgenerosity.
As a teacher, Teeters was revered by his many students, including NEC Dean of Students Thomas Handel who is also Minister of Music for Boston’s Church of the Covenant. “Don was the one who taught us (organ students) about church music and how to be church musicians,” Handel said. That included “classes in hymnody, liturgies, and—most impressively—conducting for organists. He taught us how to be successful, to respect the profession, and to be committed to creating good music in whatever church job we found ourselves.” Teeters’ students went on to populate many of the church positions in the area and beyond and included Barbara Bruns ’76 M.M., Minister of Music at Christ Church, Andover and Associate Conductor of the Boston Cecilia; James Woodman ’82 M.M., Monastery Organist for the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge; and Mark Dwyer ’85, ’90 M.M., Organist and Choirmaster at Church of the Advent.
A funeral service for 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.
For a tribute to Teeters written by Barbara Bruns, go to the Boston Musical-Intelligencer.
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