Putting the Music First

I could have sat in thankful silence.

Marlboro, Vt.

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 them.

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.
I was rash enough to tell Ms. Moyse that the orchestra couldn't match the chorus, and her answer won my heart. "Thank God you noticed that!" she cried, leading me to write, in that review 14 years ago: "She cares more for an ideal than she does for her own glory, and so she wants everyone to know how short her performance falls; she thinks the music is more important than she is herself."

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 working.


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 "Passion" urged us to Golgotha to watch the crucifixion, the chorus and a bass soloist begged us to hurry, and the strings in the orchestra gave us not just Bach's insistence, but his profound underlying sense of unease. When the chorus took the role of the soldiers casting lots for Christ's robe, their voices were murmured, edgily chattering, stricken, under their bravado, by guilt. Each of the chorales in the "Passion" -- these are simple hymns, sung as if by the entire congregation at Bach's church -- had its own tone, full of certainty when professing faith from the heart, grateful when Jesus thinks of his mother in his final hour, and anchored with unshakable acceptance after his death.

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.
Finally I understood why the start of the evening hadn't come together. This wasn't the New York performance I heard so many years ago. Nobody cared, I think, about the outward sheen that's so often the first thing we notice about most professional performances. For Blanche Moyse, if I understand her correctly, it's all or nothing. Music can't just be "performed": it must be lived, and anything less than that is simply a waste of time.

Blanche Moyse called to thank me after she read this review, and for the first time we were able to talk for as long as we wanted to. "People will think you're crazy," she said, half laughing and half serious. She didn't quite believe that her performance could be as good as I said, because she listens to tapes of what she does, and always hears things that aren't right.

She emphasized the amount of sheer work that goes into preparing her concerts, and told me that she'd once been engaged to conduct at a place where they expected her to produce results simply by the supposed magic of her presence. The music was bad, she told me, because the performers didn't want to work.

To illustrate what she meant, she told me a wonderful story about her mother, who, she said, prepared a tasty vegetable soup each day. One night, the violinist Adolf Busch (one of Blanche's mentors) came to dinner, and praised the soup. "It's good," he said, "because you made it with love." "No," said Blanche's mother. "It's good because I made it with butter." "The butter," Blanche added, just to be sure I understood, "is the work."

Blanche and her daughter, Dominque Moyse Steinberg, had invited me to Vermont to hear the "St. John Passion," and when I got there, I found that there had been a misunderstanding. I thought they'd invited me so I'd review the performance, which of course I'd intended to do. But in fact they'd asked me simply because they loved the review I wrote 14 years ago, and wanted me to join them for the festival's 30th anniversary. I can't think of many things in my career as a critic that were so flattering, or so deeply touched my heart.

(I urge you to read my earlier review, which has much information about Blanche -- biographical and otherwise -- that I couldn't get into this one.)

Wall Street Journal, February 17, 1999