Rigorous and noble soul

All of us, if we’re lucky, will sometimes meet people who shine with everything we most deeply care about. 

For me, one of those people was Blanche Honneger Moyse, who just died at the age of 101. I heard her conduct three times, always a Bach passion, once in New York at Symphony Space, and twice at the New England Bach Festival, which she founded and led in Brattleboro, VT. 

I reviewed her twice, in my critic days. You can find the reviews here and here. But what I remember most was a Vermont performance of the St. Matthew Passion that I didn’t review. I’d said, reviewing an earlier St. John Passion in Vermont, that applause didn’t seem necessary. And this time there wasn’t any, not for a long time. Everybody sat or (onstage) stood in silence. Then I saw that everyone onstage was crying — the chorus, the orchestra, the vocal soloists. Soon the audience was crying, of course including me.

These performances weren’t just high points of my musical life. They were high points of all my life. Blanche — whom I got to know — wasn’t trained as a conductor. Though she did have deep musical credentials. She was a violinist, and grew up in a France, so many years ago, surrounded by top-level music. Her teacher was Adolph Busch, one of the great chamber musicians of his time, and her father in law was Marcel Moyse, a flutist whose fame is beyond legendary. In the US, she was one of the founders of the Marlboro Festival, where she taught and conducted for many years. 

But she wasn’t a conductor in any orthodox sense. She couldn’t have guest-conducted any major orchestra. She didn’t have any kind of standard conducting technique, and couldn’t have gotten results in only three or four rehearsals. And she wouldn’t have cared about making the musicians like her, or (I think) even known how to do it. Her only care was for the music. 

Those who responded to that responded with all their souls. She worked with members of her chorus every day, for months before her festival. And her orchestra — made up of freelance musicians from New York and Boston — was grateful for the chance to rehearse with her for (literally) 10 hours every day, if that’s what she wanted. (I heard that from the musicians themselves.) 

You can read my reviews (following this link and this one) to find out more of what I knew of Blanche, and how much her performances moved me. They were profound, and also very simple, and most of all honest. What’s in the music is what she gave us. But she gave us all of it, which for anything as inspired, profound, and also moving and dramatic, as a Bach Passion is really saying something. 

But I’ll end with two stories, both also in my reviews, but worth repeating here, so everybody sees them. When I first reviewed Blanche, she’d brought her chorus to New York, and conducted the St. Matthew Passion with quite a fine orchestra, made up of freelance New York professionals. But their playing wasn’t deeply honest and exalted, as the singing of Blanche’s amateur chorus had been. 

I interviewed her by phone when I was writing my review. When you talked to her, you were impelled to be honest. She would have known if you weren’t. And so I told her that, in my opinion, the orchestra hadn’t played with the exalted emotion that her chorus had. Her answer: “Thank God you noticed that!” 

At another time, in person, she told me a story from her younger days, one I’m sure she told to others. It’s like a zen koan. And it’s a profound lesson for anyone doing any kind of creative work, about what makes the work what you want it (or ought to want it) to be. 

Adolph Busch came to her family’s home for dinner. He liked the soup her mother made. He said, “The soup is good because you made it with love.” 

“No,” her mother said. “The soup is good because I made it with butter.” 

The butter, Blanche added, just to be sure I understood, was the work involved. Hard work, with rigorous and noble attention to every detail. 

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  1. Scryabin says

    Dear Greg, I think this late musician’s name is spelled “Honegger. Also, when you write “Adolph Busch,” do you mean “Adolf Busch,” the violinist and father-in-law of Rudolf Serkin?