Her gestures draw emotion and crowds
Blanche Moyse may be classical music's best-kept secret.
The woman hailed as perhaps the best conductor of Bach has been quietly performing and teaching in Vermont for the past half-century.
Conductor Moyse's emotional performances of Bach's choral works have attracted visitors and performers to her New England Bach Festival and annual performances at the Marlboro Festival outside Brattleboro, Vt., since the 1960s.
After decades of the music world coming to her, Ms. Moyse is reaching out to the world, recording performances for a national audience and releasing new CDs.
What is Blanche Moyse's secret, which allows her to perform sacred music as if she really means it? What lets her, as British tenor Ian Partridge puts it, "draw from the performer results that maybe they thought weren't achievable"?
Chatting in her daughter's apartment in Manhattan, the small but sturdy conductor explains that over the past half-century, audiences have been loyal: "Many people come every year. We grow together, and now I feel that there's a real communion between the people and the music."
Exploring anew the masterworks of Bach, "I've learned my philosophy and feeling for life from Bach," says Moyse. "I'm infinitely grateful to have the occasion to communicate this to my audience...."
In 1999, the Vermont State Legislature issued a proclamation calling her work "as a performer, music festival director, and most enduringly, as a devoted teacher, ... truly unsurpassed."
Musicians tend to agree.
"What I particularly liked was her total commitment to the music a rare thing these days when the music business seems to be obsessed with hype," says Mr. Partridge, who made the pilgrimage to work with Moyse. "Bach's music seems to be in every pore of her being.... I've always felt that Bach was a romantic at heart, and Blanche is the one who has the key to this side of his music."
Veteran baritone John Shirley-Quirk adds that Moyse's "performances reflect the opinions of many great conductors of the early 20th century."
Born in Geneva in 1909, Moyse studied in Paris with some of the legends of modern music, like violinist Georges Enescu, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, and guitarist Andrés Segovia.
Following an unforgettable rendition of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at New York's Metropolitan Museum recently, Moyse last month led the Strathmere Ensemble in a program of Bach cantatas at New York's Ethical Culture Society, recorded for a future broadcast on National Public Radio.
Moyse has been getting these results for years: a 1969 performance of Bach's Cantata No. 30, "Rejoice, Liberated Folk," is marked with a rush of unfettered joy. Since 1951, when Moyse founded the Brattleboro Music Center, and joined with a group of legendary musicians including Rudolf Serkin and her father-in-law, flutist Marcel Moyse, in founding the Marlboro Music Festival, she has been one of America's little-celebrated treasures.
At the Ethical Culture Society concert, bass player John Kulowitsch, who has played under her direction for 30 years, performed the continuo part with ecstatic, transfigured energy. The conductor's gestures seemed to draw pillars of emotion and sound from the players.
But Moyse says that she wants more than just lovely sounds from her singers. Rather, she wants voices that communicate. "I tell my singers, 'You are the notes. The notes are there because you are feeling something. To express them, there must be feeling, thought, and intention, and you must make the intention your own,' " says Moyse.
How does she keep going?
"[Conducting] is my life. The only thing as important is nature, which also transports me to another world. I've felt this way since I was eight years old, when my parents took me to hear the St. Matthew Passion. I was so moved that I learned parts of it by heart, and would walk in the fields outside Geneva and sing, and weep."
Blanche Moyse will conduct her annual concert of Bach cantatas at the Marlboro Festival on July 26 in Marlboro, Vt. (www.marlboromusic.org), followed by Bach's B Minor Mass at the Brattleboro Music Center in October (date yet to be announced.) Bach's Cantata No. 30, 'Rejoice, Liberated Folk,' and the St. Matthew and St. John Passions are available on CD from the Brattleboro Music Center (802-257-4523 or www.bmcvt.org).