A POWERFUL WOMAN
There’s a Memorial Concert in Brattleboro this weekend, celebrating the life of Blanche Honegger Moyse. Born in Switzerland, resident since 1949 of Marlboro, VT, she died last year at age 101, a musician to the end. Tiny, intense, charismatic, she demanded excellence from her colleagues in music-making at the Marlboro Music School and Festival, of which she was a co-founder. A violinist herself, she was loved and respected by her singers, whom she loved because they were always close to the emotion of the music. She was known for her Bach interpretations: cellist Ron Eastes wrote:
"Her personal search for excellence made her go so deeply into the music, not just from a musical point of view, but emotionally and psychologically. . . She developed for herself complete notions of what the essence of a piece was, and was incredibly demanding in asking us to engage in the realization of the music.” “She invited us toward the vision.
Amen. I watched and heard her work several times at the Festival, and was always completely drawn in to the vitality of the music, and the absorption of all the performers. There was no such thing as a dull moment – and the music soared.
I’ve been preoccupied for some time with teaching ‘score reading’ – with learning to interpret the marks on the page that invite us to make music. Our very literal generation thinks that their first responsibility is to the page – to realize each and every marking. But the page has no sound – and music is only sound. Conductors like Blanche remind us that entering into the vision (what’s the aural equivalent – audition?) of the composer means entering into the world of sound. Of course each printed mark has meaning – but only when it is sounded in a way that fulfills the intention of the creator. One of the wonderful things about the performing arts is that there is no one ‘correct way’ to perform a piece. Those tiny details of length, of shading, of attack and release, can change from performance to performance – but they are only alive as part of a comprehensive view that encompasses the whole. There is no way of notating that amount of subtlety: can you write down a simple phrase like “How are you?” so that the reader gets the tone of voice you intended? It’s literally impossible – and so is a lot of music-making. (The computer, of course, is reliably opposite – but it’s not living sound.)
Conducting: what is it? A workshopper recently asked me about my own conducting technique – and I laughingly answered that I hadn’t any! That is, in the orchestral conductor’s discipline, where there is an accepted code for clarity of cues, visibility to all and so on. What I’m trying to get at is sound – the right sound that will release those notes on the page to make wonderful, communi-cative music. If I don’t have a sound image of the music in my head, all my gestures will be meaningless. Conversely I can have a wonderful idea of sound, but get in my own way in trying to elicit it by clumsy or inept motions. I do love to work with choruses, or coach instrumental performances of chamber music, where the vision is more important than the gesture allowing the individual performers to take that vision as their own. Moving along that continuum, one arrives at the point where very little gesture is necessary: the performers are making the music from within, and all the conductor has to do is gently guide the flowing stream.
One final word about gesture: it can be compared to a dance, to movements of the human body within the context of the song. One set of gestures does not fit all. The conductor must move through his or her own body, not someone else. A woman can’t use a man’s, or a student the teacher’s.
Conducting, then, is both inner and outer: the leader’s inner vision of the complex webs of sound that must be channeled through the body to give outer cues to the performers. In the best instance, the leader is so immersed that she ‘becomes the song’: there is no break between the inner and outer manifestation. Everyone within hearing is absorbed into this flow – and a true musical experience takes place.
Back to Blanche: there in the newspaper photo she’s wearing a short-sleeved simple dress, her aging arms outstretched, and her face totally absorbed in the music. The outward appearance (despite our show-biz culture) simply doesn’t matter. She’s making music, and everyone knows it.