The Boston Cecilia: Past - Present - Future
Ever since its founding in 1876, The Boston Cecilia has enjoyed a history remarkable for its many fine conductors. The adventurous B.J. Lang in his 33 years of leadership established a pattern of introducing new works to Boston audiences alongside standard repertoire. Many of those unknown pieces joined the canon—the Bach Mass in B Minor, Brahms Requiem, and Handel's Acis and Galatea, to name a few. Among his novel ideas, Lang had the boldness to program Bach for a Victorian audience whose taste, ironically, found “antique” music decidedly old-fashioned.
Cecilia has long held a central place in the performing arts in this city. Antonín Dvořák led the chorus in Boston’s first performance of his Requiem in 1892. It premiered Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and later sang it under Max Fiedler at the dedication of Symphony Hall in 1900. Igor Stravinsky, commissioned by his countryman Serge Koussevitsky, composed his Symphony of Psalms for the Boston Symphony when Cecilia in 1930 sang the choral part in the American premiere, six days after its world debut in Switzerland. During those years music director Arthur Fiedler brought Cecilia through the Depression and World War II as the official chorus of the BSO. Under his and Koussevitzky’s firm control, this was a period of prominence if not independence.
After the war, Cecilia meandered until 1968, when Donald Teeters became music director. This young, inexperienced conductor set an ambitious path over the next 44 years, surpassing Lang’s tenure. With high musical standards, Teeters was the first in Boston to perform Bach and Handel with period instruments, including all but two Handel oratorios. At the same time, he led the American premiere of Britten’s Phaedra and many performances of other Britten and contemporary works, some with the ink still wet. Through the changing times, shifting tastes, and turns of technology, Cecilia again became a chorus of moderate size, able to shine in music of diverse periods and styles. In this third period of prosperity, to quote longtime member Stephen Jay Gould’s history, The Cecilia: The First Hundred Years (1975), the chorus returned to “Lang’s goals of independence and innovation.”
Since Nicholas White became music director in 2013, Cecilia has embarked on a new era that embraces these same goals. He has conducted the chorus in fresh new a cappella pieces, some composed by himself, as well as acknowledged masterpieces, such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and lesser known works as Janáček’s Otče náš (The Lord’s Prayer), all to critical praise. In this way he has shown himself experienced and resourceful in wide-ranging repertoire, standard and otherwise. In his own way he maintains Cecilia’s traditions, by showing reverence for the past even as he looks to the future.