Every fall, a collection of musicians from Vermont, New York, and Boston gathers in Marlborough, Vermont, to play Bach. I have been blessed to play in the New England Bach Festival for the last four years, and would like to tell you something about these concerts, which have been among the most powerful musical and personal experiences of my life.
Blanche Moyse, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 101, was the beloved founder of this tradition. A respected European violinist and interpreter of Bach’s music, she moved from Paris to Brattleboro, VT in 1949. She then spent the next six decades cultivating one of the most inspired and sincere communities of music making that I have ever encountered. Along with colleagues Rudolph Serkin and Adolf Busch, Blanche Moyse founded the music department at Marlborough College, the Brattleborough Music Center, the Marlborough Music Festival, the New England Bach Festival, and the Blanche Moyse Chorale. The Blanche Moyse Chorale now lives on under the leadership of Artistic Director Mary Westbrook-Geha.
It was only after Blance’s death that I had the great fortune of being invited to join these remarkable musicians. Having known about the New England Bach Festival for many years, I was, to a certain degree, prepared for the exceptionally high level of artistic music making. It was the humanity of these musicians, however, that made a powerful and lasting impression.
Many of the players and singers have been gathering in the beautiful hills and foliage of Marlborough to play Bach together for the last forty or fifty years. As people arrive before the first rehearsal, they greet each other as true friends – everyone having left their usual stresses and distractions at home, fully present, fully aware of each other, ready to immerse themselves in the experience of Bach.
There is no concept of ego, and no one is there to show-off or prove anything. Everyone is on the same team, committed to the common goal of music making, and elevated by the group.
While the pursuit of excellence certainly is exciting, both for performers and audiences, proving oneself on stage – being the best – should never be the goal of music making. High level playing must serve greater musical goals – pursuing excellence only for excellence’s sake leads to feelings of stress and pressure, as if one dare not breathe out of step, and a single wrong note would spell disaster for the concert and for one’s future career! Naturally, this thinking puts a straight-jacket on a musician’s ability to engage meaningfully with other musicians and audiences, and distracts from the real reasons people gather for a concert.
At the New England Bach Festival, experienced and mature musicians radiate transcendence from this concept of music making. They have gone beyond excellence. There is no struggle, no competition. It goes without saying that everyone is prepared and playing at the highest level; however, once we are gathered on stage for rehearsal, there is only room for the music, and the level of focus is astonishing.
Playing with them – very humbly – for the first time, I did not feel intimidated. They created an atmosphere of calm confidence, as though a new player could easily live up to the highest standards, simply by joining the music making. We were not there to struggle; we were certainly not there to judge, neither others nor ourselves – there was no place for that. We were there to play Bach.
Perhaps it is not possible to find this level of music making and human interaction without decades of work and experience. Perhaps it’s not possible without the idyllic beauty and quiet of Brattleboro, Vermont. (Perhaps it’s not possible in a location with cell phone service!) However, we must try. I am so grateful to have met these extraordinary people, and to have experienced their warm, deeply respectful, and human way of making music. It is musical and spiritual fuel, and informs my approach to rehearsals and teaching in Boston throughout the year.
Imagine what a group of students, for example, will learn about themselves, human connection, and music, if they can learn to work together in this way! They must practice and prepare fully, of course, to the best of their potential. This requires time and dedication, and a removal from excessive distraction. Then they must learn to listen to each other, to be supportive and encouraging, to free themselves from doubt and be totally in the moment. They must get lost in the communal experience of creating and discovering beauty.
This year we played Bach’s St. John Passion. I hope to see you at next year’s performances, in the fall of 2016!
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The Power of Live Music – Be There