Blanche Honegger Moyse, likely Vermont’s most influential musician and one of the world’s great Bach conductors, died in Brattleboro in 2011 at the age of 101. Since then, her Blanche Moyse Chorale and Brattleboro Music Center have remembered her annually with a Bach concert that brings together members of Moyse’s New England Bach Festival as well as the newly initiated. And the same can be said for the audience.
The concert’s aim has been to relive the Moyse Bach experience, but last Sunday’s performance at the Brattleboro Music Center took it a step further. The program of four Bach cantatas reflected Moyse’s ideals, but, under the direction of Mary Westbrook-Geha, became a musical force of its own.
Westbrook-Geha, Moyse’s longtime mezzo-soprano soloist, took over the select 27-voice Chorale not long after Moyse retired in 2004, but she had little experience as a conductor. However, with the support of Moyse’s Chorale, soloists and instrumentalists, she has developed. And Sunday’s performance reflected Westbrook-Geha’s musical passion and depth as it did Moyse’s musical ideals.
Westbrook-Geha’s influence can be seen in the excellence of the Chorale. Not only did the auditioned chorus sound great, it sang with a precision, blend and expressiveness not heard since the Moyse years. With Westbrook-Geha, it has become one fine instrument, her instrument.
Wonderfully, parts of the concert took listeners right back to Moyse’s Bach Festival, but reflecting added maturity of the players. Quintessential and sublime was the aria “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (Dearest Jesus, my desire)” from Cantata BWV 32. Soprano Hyunah Yu and oboist Stephen Taylor, two of Moyse’s favorites, waxed eloquent in this lovely lyrical duet. Yu’s gem-like voice and Taylor’s warm oboe intertwined and sang irresistibly and touchingly.
Stephen Paul Spears, another Moyse favorite, used his fluid lyrical tenor to make the recitativs throughout the program compelling in themselves rather than interludes between arias. His lightness enabled the wonderfully lyrical virtuoso runs in the aria “Ewigkeot, du machst mir bange (Eternity, you make me frightened)” from Cantata BWV 20 to truly sing.
Baritone Nathaniel Sullivan, though not a Moyse veteran, fit right in, particularly when singing with Bach Festival alumni. In “Hier, in meines Vaters Stätte (Here, in My Father’s place)” from Cantata BWV 32, Sullivan sang with a warm lyricism, danced around by longtime Moyse violinist Mayuki Fukuhara. The lyricism of veteran oboists Taylor and Mark Hill provided the warm bed for Sullivan’s expressive presence in “Gott, bei deinem starken Schützen (God, under Your strong protection).”
Helmed by Fukuhara from the concertmaster chair, the 19-member Blanche Moyse Memorial Orchestra included eight Bach festival veterans. The Chorale also included a number of veterans from the Moyse years. And you could hear it.
Moyse’s unique approach to Bach mixed an understanding of Baroque music scholarship with the depth of a musician steeped in the romantic musical traditions of Europe. While Moyse’s Bach was always precise, it delivered the depth of emotion of Bach’s religious texts that left few untouched.
Unique to Moyse was her mixing of amateur and professional musicians with unequaled results. In 1978, Moyse selected the best from the community Brattleboro Music Center Chorus to form the 30-plus-member Blanche Moyse Chorale. Rehearsals were frequent, intense and rigorous — certainly not for the uncommitted — but the results proved successful.
Moyse combined her Chorale with a professional orchestra and vocal soloists to create the touring New England Bach Festival, which drew audiences internationally. Indicative of Moyse’s success was that when she and the Blanche Moyse Chorale made their Carnegie Hall debut in 1987 — when Moyse was 78 — they received unprecedented rave reviews from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Moyse’s final performance with the Bach Festival was in 2004 at the age of 95.
Last weekend’s Bach concerts at the Brattleboro Music Center show that Moyse’s spirit lives on. But rather than just a remembrance of the past, Mary Westbrook-Geha and her colleagues have made Moyse’s Bach their own, to live and grow with them. Which is wonderful for us.