Sometimes you hear a concert that sticks with you. For months you think
about it, keeping it alive in your mind, unable to banish it merely to
memory. These concerts are rare, of course, and when I came here this fall
for the New England Bach Festival, I wasn't sure that I'd be hearing one of
I'd heard the festival 14 years ago, or rather not quite the festival itself, but a Bach performance in New York conducted by its founder and conductor Blanche Honneger Moyse. She'd brought her festival chorus, the Blanche Moyse Chorale, and when I wrote about them for this page, I chose my words like a man stricken with love. "The Moyse Chorale," I wrote, "performed the 'Passion According to St. Matthew' with the precision and power of great actors, and with the humility of believers who know that the story they're telling is more important than they are themselves."
This chorale, it's important to stress, is an
amateur group, but it reached heights professionals rarely even dream of. The
orchestra at this concert, though, reversed the equation. Its musicians were
top New York freelance pros, and by any objective measure they were more
accomplished than the chorus. Their tone was richer, for instance, and they
were more precise. But all they did was play the music, They didn't offer
even hints of the emotional truth that glowed from the chorale, and seemed to
transfigure the singers like a blessing from above.
We'd spoken only on the phone back then, and when I went to Vermont for
this year's festival, the group's 30th anniversary, I met her in person, at
breakfast at her daughter's house. She's 89 years old, with eyes that read
you as you speak, as if she demanded to know not just what you said, but what
you felt, and what you really meant.
And yet I don't remember much about our
conversation, only that she cut it off because she needed to go home, to
prepare for her concert that afternoon. She'd conducted the same program the
night before -- this time Bach's "Passion According to St. John,"
starker than the "St. Matthew," but also more immediate and painful
-- and she wanted to review the tape, to listen to everything she'd done, in
hopes of coining closer to how she knows the music ought to go.
Which, come to think of it, is what we talked
about: Perfection, and its impossibility. The performance -- in Persons
Auditorium at Marlboro College, a simple wooden room -- started oddly. It
sounded listless, scrappy, even slightly tattered. Onstage were the Moyse
Chorale, vocal soloists and a professional orchestra drawn from New York,
Boston and the local area. I recognized some of the players from concerts in
New York, and I know they’re splendid, but something wasn’t
Ms. Moyse insists, correctly, that she isn't a conductor. She trained as a violinist in her native Switzerland; when she was young she knew some of Europe's most refined musicians; in Vermont, she helped found the legendary Marlboro Festival. But conducting, despite her distinguished pedigree, is nothing she aspires to; she wouldn't know how to handle the New York Philharmonic, say, if she should find herself in front of them. But now, even in her element, she seemed too rough for comfort.
And then something happened. I found I couldn't take my eyes off the
printed text, which the festival supplied in the program book. The text is in
German, and I wanted to be sure I knew the meaning of every word; I had to
know the words, because they'd come to life in the music. Midway through
there's a tenor aria about the scourging of Christ, with a middle section
about the grace of God, in which we're told about a rainbow opening over the
weary earth. The rainbow all but took shape before my eyes, not just because
Bach unveiled it in his music with surpassing reassurance, but because the
tenor soloist, Steven Paul Spears, made it visible in his voice.
The orchestra was right there with him,
playing the rainbow, too, making it as vivid as Mr. Spears did. For the first
time, I understood one reason why Bach's vocal melodies have such complex,
searching contours; they're tracing not just musical thoughts, but also the
changing weight and implications of the text. I'd never noticed that, because
I'd never heard a performance so true to the words.
When the final chorus began, I felt the earth sliding into its place in
the firmament. After the last notes died away, applause seemed unnecessary
(though of course there was lots of it); I would have been content to sit in
thankful silence. At a party afterwards, I learned at least a little about
how such music can be made. Ms. Moyse works individually with members of the
chorus all year long. The orchestral musicians respect her so much that
they'll play for less than their usual fees, rehearsing up to 10 hours a day
if that's what she wants.
Wall Street Journal, February 17, 1999