With ‘Jephtha,’ Teeters and Cecilia cap three decades of Handel
The chorus known as Boston Cecilia has had many names over its 135 years, but in recent decades, only one music director. Donald Teeters has presided in that post since 1968, and will be stepping down at the end of next season, a distinguished run surely longer than a few of his current choristers have been on this planet.
Over the last three decades, Teeters, who was an assistant conductor under Thomas Dunn at the Handel and Haydn Society, has been leading his accomplished amateur chorus in uncut, period instrument performances of Handel’s dramatic oratorios. The sheer number of works traversed over the years is quite impressive, from “Semele’’ and “Athalia’’ in the early 1980s all the way through “Jephtha,’’ Handel’s last oratorio. Cecilia first performed the work in 1995, and Teeters chose to return to this piece for his final Handel performance with the group on Sunday afternoon in Jordan Hall.
It’s not difficult to see why one might choose this piece for a Handelian grand finale. Thomas Morell’s libretto freely adapts the biblical story of Jephtha, who commanded the Israelites in battle after vowing that, if victorious in war, he would offer the life of the first person he encountered as a sacrifice to God. When that person is his own daughter, he is plunged into anguish. (Mozart’s “Idomeneo’’ covers similar ground.) The depth of emotion and invention in Handel’s music is virtually unsurpassed elsewhere in his work, and the fluidity and theatricality of the writing seems to carry the genre of the oratorio itself onto a new dramatic plane.
Its creation also took a great toll on Handel, who was slowly going blind. Signs of struggle are visible in his musical handwriting itself, and in the middle of the final chorus of Act II (“How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees’’), the composer broke off his work, noting the date (Feb. 13, 1751) in the margins of his manuscript, and stating that his faltering vision had forced him to stop. He was able to pick up the work again 10 days later, and finished it over the course of the next six months.
For Sunday’s performance, Teeters and the chorus fielded a veteran period instrument orchestra led by concertmaster Daniel Stepner, and a cast of soloists that included Aaron Sheehan as Jephtha, Teresa Wakim as his daughter Iphis, Deborah Rentz-Moore as his wife Storge, Ron Williams as his brother Zebul, Martin Near as Hamor, and Ryan Williams as the Angel. The performances were never less than solid and secure, though some of the solo singing and a portion of the orchestral playing would have benefited from sharper characterization, more attention to coloristic detail, and a more pointed emotional specificity.
Teeters drew a large, warm, disciplined sound from the chorus, weightier than the current fashion but satisfying in its expressive fullness. And there were some radiant moments at which everything came together. When the singers and orchestra arrived at that exalted closing chorus of Act II, Teeters led with particular care and commitment, drawing from his forces a beautifully integrated sound and a touching depth of feeling that made it an instant highlight of the afternoon.
Also memorable was boy soprano Ryan Williams, who at 13 sang a solo aria with purity of tone, accuracy of pitch, and a sound sense of musical line, causing Teeters to stop the performance in its tracks and give the young Williams a solo bow.
The conductor’s final season with Cecilia opens Nov. 6 with a performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,’’ for which Cecilia will be joined by the chorus of Musica Sacra.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.