Conductor leads last major work at Bach Festival

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(Host) This weekend at Marlboro College, musician Blanche Moyse will conduct her last major choral masterwork. Now in her nineties, the renowned conductor says it’s time to cut back a little.

VPR’s Susan Keese checks in at the New England Bach Festival.

(Keese) In a white church in Guilford the Blanche Moyse Chorale is rehearsing for its New England Bach Festival performance. Blanche Honneger Moyse, the festival’s founder and the chorus’s director, faces a semi-circle of 35 singers. Moyse is 94 years old. She’s a small sturdy-looking woman with white hair, black pants and a gold-flecked chenille sweater. She spends three mornings a week working out at a local health club.

But after three and a half decades of leading this dedicated local group, she says she’s tired of working seven hour days. So she’s decided that this will be her last major choral performance.

People who know Moyse well aren’t surprised that she’s chosen the Christmas Oratorio. It’s one of Bach’s most joyous choral works. It’s also dauntingly ambitious

(Moyse) "It’s a big piece, about three hours and it’s very beautiful. It doesn’t have any drama like the passions or the mass, which are so serious. Not that it’s not serious, I couldn’t say that. It’s much more like counting a lovely story of the birth of Jesus. People usually like it very much."

(Keese) When Moyse was only 78, she brought this oratorio to Carnegie Hall with her chorale and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. The New York Times called it absolutely glorious. After three hours on stage, the critic said, Moyse seemed vigorous enough to start all over.

Nearly 20 years later, her failing eyes have trouble following the magnified score in front of her. But Festival coordinator Beth Ann Betts says Moyse has always preferred to conduct by memory.

(Betts) "She works on her score every day and she’s got everything in her head. And that’s not as easy as it used to be.

(Keese) Moyse began her musical career as a violinist. She was a childhood prodigy in her native Switzerland studying with musical giants like Adolf Busch, Wanda Landowska and Andres Segovia. She married Louis Moyse, the flutist and pianist. The trio they formed with her father-in-law flutist Marcel Moyse, was celebrated around the world in the years before World War Two.

After the war the trio moved to Southern Vermont, where Busch and his son-in-law pianist Rudolf Serkin had already settled.

(Moyse) "And they were trustees of Marlboro College. And they arranged with the president of Marlboro College to create a music department with us. And I taught at the college 35 years."

(Keese) The group of musical friends also founded the Marlboro Music Festival. Blanche Moyse started a music school in Brattleboro. She also formed a community chorus.

When a hand injury ended her career as a violinist, she devoted herself to Bach, particularly the choral works. Moyse says Bach is the greatest of all the great composers.

(Moyse) "Beethoven is one of the greatest artists there is also. But Beethoven I feel is tormented. He has a drama in his heart I feel he’s like the question of the world, and Bach is the answer."

(Keese) Moyse began the New England Bach Festival in 1969. Today it’s a three-week concert series that draws musicians from all over the country. The centerpiece is always a major Bach choral work. It’s performed by an orchestra of professionals, who return to Vermont every year for the joy of performing Bach with Moyse and the Blanche Moyse Chorale.

Beth Ann Betts is one of a number of chorus members who’ve been singing with Moyse for 30 years or more.

(Betts) "Most of us are you know regular teachers, doctors, therapists, carpenters, farmers, whatever – everyday people who get a chance to get lifted up by working with her and making great music together."

(Moyse) "Take your breath and go on with me, but don’t let that note sit down too tired like that. All of this music has an incredible swing to it, it’s all the time meaning something, exploding or rejoicing. It’s all the time alive and we should not leave one note without care."

(Keese) Moyse says she isn’t sure exactly what’s next in her musical career. But she’ll continue working in one way or another.

(Moyse) "I wouldn’t want to have no work. It’s fine to get a vacation for two three weeks. But I would hate to have a life where I don’t work in music."

(Keese) Moyse has vowed that if she lives to be 100, she’ll conduct Bach’s St. Matthew Passion to celebrate.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

The Blanche Moyse Chorale will perform Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at 3:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Marlboro College.

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