TWENTY-ONE years ago, Blanche Honegger Moyse assessed the cultural climate of this remote hillside town and came to one conclusion: The people were ready for J.S. Bach - an entire festival devoted to the Baroque composer, no less. By then Mrs. Moyse, a renowned Swiss violinist, had already founded a music center, a community chorus, and a chamber-music series here in her adopted home. So the time was ripe for another dream of hers to come true, and the New England Bach Festival was born.
Now each fall, as the leaves play out their famous counterpoint of red and gold, residents and itinerant ``leaf-peepers'' can hear the interweaving strains of the master German composer in a festival that has expanded to a 10-concert tour of the northeast.
``Bach is one of the musicians that will appeal to everyone - the learned and the unlearned alike,'' asserts Mrs. Moyse, seated in the rustic living room of her home, which overlooks the Brattleboro hills. ``Like in jazz, people can't resist tapping their foot.''
The month-long festival has achieved a level of international recognition not unfamiliar to the 80-year-old conductor, who in her early days was a member of the world-famous Moyse Trio, along with her husband, Louis Moyse (flutist and pianist), and his father, the late Marcel Moyse (one of France's greatest flutists).
Mrs. Moyse feels more people should know Bach's music - not just for the fun of it, but because it's uplifting to the human spirit. His music has an unrivaled sense of rhythm, vitality, and ``a very solid and balanced architecture, which makes everybody feel good,'' she says, stroking the orange cat curled up in her lap. ``There's also a lot of love in that music. Rhythm, life, and love are what people need most!''
In recent years, the conductor has won critical acclaim for performances of the ``Christmas Oratorio'' and the ``St. Matthew Passion,'' featuring the Blanche Moyse Chorale. Last month, she earned praise in Boston for her reading of the ``Magnificat in D Major.'' She has conducted the monumental works from memory (the ``Passion'' is three hours-plus), and, as noted by critics, with impressive fervor.
Unlike today's ``authentic performance'' advocates, Moyse isn't bound to the use of period instruments. For this reason, some critics have labeled her ``old-fashioned.'' But she strongly defends her approach, which she says is based on thorough study of current scholarship. She's more interested in ``the way people play,'' she adds, than in what instruments are used.
``She's true to her own vision,'' says Myron Lutzke, principal cellist with the Handel & Haydn Society and the Boston Early Music Festival. For this year's Bach festival, he played under Moyse's direction in the Orchestra of St. Luke's. She has a ``keen awareness of what's happening stylistically'' in the early-music scene, he says, yet ``she has a very clear personal vision of the spiritual nature of the music as well.''
Mr. Lutzke, who plays both Baroque and modern cello, adds that working with Moyse is always inspiring, ``because of her commitment to making the music say something. ... That's where her greatest strength lies.''
Today, Moyse devotes most of her time to her chorale, founded in 1978. Her goal of ``doing justice'' to Bach's music accounts for the rigorous rehearsals for the all-amateur group. ``I treat [the singers] as I did my violin - they are my instrument,'' she says.
``People ask me, `Why do you do so much Bach?' I say, `He's the one who wrote so much for chorus!' explains the petite Moyse, laughing heartily. ``Bach must have written about 500 cantatas for church services.... Only about 200 have survived. Among these works there is an enormous amount of masterworks - and they are not known!''
HER rich French accent adds poignancy to her words - heightening one's sense of her Old-World reverence for the master. Bach's music ``is always dancing,'' she adds. ``It's full of joy, and yet it's fully religious. He must have been an incredible man.''
Gregory Hayes, harpsichordist for the New England Bach Festival Orchestra, says one quickly senses ``her great earnestness and enormous commitment to what she's doing.'' During rehearsals, there is ``a feeling of real love and affection to the whole thing,'' which is ``less common today'' among professional musicians than he'd like it to be.
ONE Sunday night before the ``Magnificat'' concerts, chorus members were huddled in a local church near here, scores in hand, subjecting themselves to Moyse and her metronome. During a break, she described her 30 or so singers as ``a new mixture of flower.'' They are not professionals, yet not ordinary amateurs, either.
``She'll go over one phrase for 15 minutes,'' said soprano Tina Snell, a graduate student in psychology. ``It seems like a lot, but by golly she gets what she wants.''
Time and again, Moyse stopped the bass section with sharp claps of her hands to make points about pronunciation, word emphasis, and pitch. The men hastily jotted notes on their scores. Some exchanged furtive looks of exasperation. ``If you don't stop a mistake when it's made,'' explained Moyse later, ``the body assumes it was alright.''
Sometimes at the end of the day, ``you're tired,'' said John Goss, a now-retired educator, who has been singing with Moyse since 1955, when she conducted the community chorus. Facing up to her demands is ``challenging, to say the least.''
After several weeks of rehearsing the ``Magnificat,'' the singers were required to come, two by two, to Moyse's house and sing the entire work for her. ``A lot of people get really nervous about that,'' said Ms. Snell. Obviously, such intensive rehearsing is not for everyone - some have left in the past. But those who stay have learned to withstand Moyse's methods, ``because they have witnessed the results,'' says the conductor. ``I like the perfection,'' added Snell.
Moyse actually prefers working with amateur singers. ``They are so good, because they were so bad!'' she remarks. ``They are perfectly willing to go on improving all the time. Professionals would say, `Leave us alone; we don't want to get any better.'''
During rehearsal, the difficult vocal lines of Bach were sung, part by part, sopranos through the basses, as Moyse listened with her eyes shut for the slightest pitch deviation. Poor performances got the rebuttal: ``You should know this by now!''
But many times Moyse's sense of humor saves the day.
``When things get really tense, something she'll say will just loosen everyone up,'' said Mr. Goss.
``They are mad at me sometimes,'' says Moyse, smiling playfully, ``but they love me, and they know I love them.''