Slayton: Choral Legacy

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(HOST) Vermont’s cultural life suffered two significant losses last week with the deaths of choral conductors Blanche Moyse and Dr. James Chapman. Tom Slayton had attended performances by both – those of Blanche Moyse at the Marlboro Music festival, Dr. Chapman’s at UVM. Here is his remembrance.

(SLAYTON) For Blanche Moyse, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was her first language, something she knew so intimately and completely that she could speak it without any need of translation.
She spoke Bach through her chorus, the Blanche Moyse Chorale; and for more than five decades she and the Chorale made music of transcendent beauty, grace, and power. It was obvious that she loved Bach’s choral music, and because she was a thoroughly trained, deeply gifted musician – even before she began her conducting career in southern Vermont – she made that music come alive as few others ever have.
The facts of Blanche Moyse’s career are well known – that she was born in Switzerland, recognized early on as a gifted violinist, performed in Europe, and came to Vermont to become one of the founders of the acclaimed Marlboro Music festival. Shortly after World War II she began her work as a choral conductor after an injury to her bow arm ended her career as a concert violinist.
Mrs. Moyse didn’t take sides, nor did she compromise in the ongoing controversy between period performances of Bach’s music on historical instruments and Romantic performances on modern instruments.
Rather, she appropriated the best of both styles, performing Bach’s music with incredible precision and complete allegiance to the score, yet allowing its deep emotional content to express itself. Because of that fine balance, her performances were both intellectually satisfying and deeply moving, and because of them she and the chorale won international fame and the hearts of those fortunate enough to attend.
Since her death last week, musicians and fans across Vermont have commented on the great gift she gave all of us through her work. Soprano Marjorie Drysdale noted that Moyse studied every score so deeply that "…she was able to bring her musicians into a relationship with the soul of Bach himself."
And I would add that she brought her audiences into that relationship also.
The sad loss of Blanche Moyse was compounded last week with the death of another important Vermont choral conductor. Although Dr. James Chapman, founder and director for many years of the UVM Choral Union, was not so widely known as Moyse, his impact on the quality of music performed at UVM was no less profound.
His friend and longtime musical associate, Professor William Metcalfe, noted last week that Chapman formed the first top-level choir in the Burlington area in 1968, in the UVM Choral Union.
"Jim had a strikingly good ear, as good as one could ever have in a conductor," Metcalfe said, adding that Chapman was "…a perfectionist who spurred his choristers on toward that end."
The legacy of both these fine conductors is the continuing high quality of classical music in our state. They set a high standard that continues to this day. That they chose Vermont as their place benefits all of us.
And we all should be grateful for their lives and work.

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