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The Arts

A concert for Blanche

Moyse’s memory to be honored with an all-Bach program at Marlboro College

The Blanche Moyse Memorial Concert will take place in Persons Auditorium at Marlboro College. To purchase tickets ($50, $20, $10), call the Brattleboro Music Center at 802-257-4523 or visit the website.

BRATTLEBORO—After a musical piece Blanche Honegger Moyse had been rehearsing ended too abruptly, violinist Anne Hooper remembers the Bach conductor exclaiming, “Don’t place an ending note like a plate on the table.”

Hooper was a longtime member of the Marlboro Bach Festival, which Moyse conducted until she retired in 2004. She recalls Moyse as a master of pithy expression.

Arguing for a pure style in performing Bach, Moyse once memorably proclaimed: “Vibrato! It’s like lipstick. Some people think they put it on no matter what.”

Hooper found Moyse’s “bon mots” so brilliant that she would memorize them to write down once she got the chance.

And she thinks she was not the only one. Hooper believes that somewhere in the vaults of Brattleboro Music Center, a booklet of quotes contains all the great aphorisms of “Madame Bach,” as Moyse was affectionately called.

On Sunday, Oct. 2, at 3 p.m. in Marlboro, the Brattleboro Music Center will present a memorial concert in celebration of the long life, incomparable artistry, and passion of Blanche Honegger Moyse, who died Feb. 10 at the age of 101.

The program for the Blanche Moyse Memorial Concert is, as Moyse would have preferred, all Bach, including Cantata 42, Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats; Cantata 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben; and Cantata 30, Freue dich, erloeste Schar.

The three pieces represent Moyse’s love for all aspects of Bach’s musical output.

The concert features Hyunah Yu, soprano; Mary Westbrook-Geha, and Mary Nessinger, mezzo-soprano; Steven Paul Spears, tenor; Sanford Sylvan and Randall Scarlata, baritone; and the New England Bach Festival Orchestra Blanche Moyse Chorale, conducted by its new director, Mary Westbrook-Geha.

“This memorial concert features many of the elements that Blanche knew were vital for a meaningful performance: energetic, even triumphal choruses; awe-inspiring arias; brilliant chamber music; and lovely, intimate orchestral works,” explains Zon Eastes, longtime Blanche Moyse associate and concert organizer.

Moyse established the New England Bach Festival in 1969, the Brattleboro Music Center’s most artistically ambitious program.

From the Festival’s modest beginnings (two concerts one fall weekend), the New England Bach Festival emerged as one of the leading celebrations of the genius of Bach.

Moyse was born in Geneva in 1909 and lived in Europe until 1949, when she and her husband, Louis Moyse, moved to Brattleboro.

A protégé of Adolf Busch, Blanche Moyse was a successful concert violinist and chamber musician when she was invited to Vermont by Busch’s son-in-law, Rudolf Serkin, to teach at Marlboro College.

There she remained for more than 30 years, founding the Marlboro Music School and Festival together with Adolf and Hermann Busch, Serkin, and her husband in 1951.

After an injury to her bow arm in 1966, she went on to become a much-admired conductor, devoting herself to cultivating her longstanding passion for Bach’s choral music. She founded the New England Bach Festival in 1969 and the Blanche Moyse Chorale in 1978.

She made her Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 78.

In 2000, Blanche Moyse was awarded the Alfred Nash Patterson Lifetime Achievement Award by Choral Arts New England in recognition of her exceptional contributions to choruses and the appreciation of choral music in New England.

Many of Moyse’s former colleagues are gathering in Marlboro to pay tribute to a woman who was a great inspiration.

“All the musicians participating in the concert are donating their services,” explains Eastes, “which is a wonderful tribute to the love and respect Blanche won while working with musicians.”

“Blanche taught us all so well,” says Eastes. “Our collective memories of her — and her indomitable spirit — will guide us as we prepare and perform. The hall will resonate with the memory of Blanche’s work and passion, and the audience will be gratified to hear the music of J.S. Bach, as mastered by Blanche Moyse.”

Musicians clearly adored Moyse. Hooper said she was “stunned by the woman. The expression in her eyes was so inspiring.” She believed Moyse had a spiritual communication with the works of Bach.

The great late soprano Arleen Auger has said of her, “I’ve sung Bach all over the world, often with people who are considered the best, and in my opinion no one is performing Bach any better than Blanche Moyse is doing it in Brattleboro.”

Yu says that “meeting Blanche was a revelation. She changed my life, making me the singer I am today. She was a friend, a mom, and a grandmother to me.”

Moyse took Yu into her home when performing at the festival, teaching and cooking for her. Yu would sit at her feet and listen to the older musician’s words of advice and gossipy stories of all the people she knew throughout her long career.

“She even took me out and bought me ice cream and steak. She knew I loved meat.”

All of which is not to say that some people did not find her hard to work with.

Eastes explains that Moyse was “generous and thoughtful. She would listen carefully to anyone. But she had very high standards. She believed anyone can improve, and to do that, she could be forceful and demanding to get a deeper understanding. She was intense. Some thought her too intense.”

Westbrook-Geha admits that Blanche could be difficult: “She was so demanding. She never got tired. When you hit the wall, she forced you to get a second wind.”

“But that’s when the good stuff starts happening,” she says. “You find something hidden there.”

Many who worked with Moyse consider the Bach Festival an incredible learning experience. Anne Hooper once told her, “Blanche, we come here to go to school.”

Moyse, she says, loved rehearsals because that was where all the learning took place. She once claimed, “Rehearsals are what we are here for. We perform so we can rehearse.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #120 (Wednesday, September 28, 2011).

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