MASTER CHORALE OF SOUTH FLORIDA
BOCA RATON SYMPHONIA
SARAH SHAFER/J'NAI BRIDGES/JOSHUA STEWART/
HANDEL: MESSIAH (12-6-09)
By Lawrence Budmen
For over a decade British conductor James Judd was a formidable artistic presence in South Florida. From 1987 to 1991 Judd was music director of the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, a regional ensemble that presented concerts in three counties, including major symphonic series in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. Judd's skills as an orchestra builder were awesome. In just a few years he raised the Florida Philharmonic's performance level to major status, culminating in recordings of scores by Walton, Mahler and Bernstein for the Harmonia Mundi and Naxos labels (including an acclaimed Mahler First Symphony). Particularly memorable performances of Mahler's 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 9th symphonies and wide ranging Beethoven festivals marked Judd's ambitious tenure.
Despite the conductor's yeoman efforts at fund raising, the orchestra experienced chronic budget deficits and financial woes. (At one point, Judd even donated his salary to keep the group afloat.) Shortly after Judd left to begin his term as principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony (with which he made a series of distinguished recordings), the Florida Philharmonic ceased operations. The absence of Judd's often inspired music making has left a void in South Florida's musical life.
James Judd returned to the podium at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA, scene of many of his greatest musical triumphs, on December 6, 2009 to lead the Master Chorale of South Florida and members of the Boca Raton Symphonia in Handel's Messiah. Performances in Miami and Boca Raton took places on the two previous days. (During Judd's Florida directorship, Handel's oratorio became a Christmas perennial.) Using the same scores and markings that he so frequently utilized, the conductor offered a wonderfully spontaneous, festive rendition that radiated pure joy.
Although the musicians played modern instruments, Judd opted for a vibrato less period instrument approach, favoring lithe, springy tempos and transparent instrumental and choral lines. This Messiah was moving and fervent without succumbing to ponderousness, rousing and warm hearted without blatant extremes of volume. Judd understands that Messiah is a journey of the human spirit, an exultant celebration of the creative soul. His high spirited, subtly reflective version was admirably stylish; Baroque filigree and vocal ornamentation aptly utilized.
The Master Chorale of South Florida is an outgrowth of the Florida Philharmonic Chorus, the group formed during Judd's orchestral tenure. (Multiple performances of Beethoven's Misa Solemnis and Verdi's Requiem were highlights of the Judd years.) Now under the direction of the superbly gifted Joshua Habermann, the Master Chorale exhibited verbal clarity and turn on a dime musical precision. Judd drew wonderfully nuanced modulations and rhythmically vital singing from this splendid choral ensemble. (The Master Chorale has had a stellar year - from an eloquent Mendelssohn Elijah to a deeply moving Lux Aeterna by Morten Lauridsen to an exhilarating Beethoven 9th Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony.) The shining final choral affirmation was glowingly voiced, shaped with eloquence and grandeur by Judd.
The 29 members of the Boca Raton Symphonia were no less outstanding. Instrumental timbres were bright, rhythms crisply articulated. Jeffrey Kaye's brilliant star trumpet turn on The Trumpet Shall Sound gleamed with virtuosic command. Led by concertmaster Misha Vitenson, the strings exuded energy and precision while the important wind writing was elegantly stated. The continuo playing of Michael Linville (on harpsichord) and Matthew Steynor (on organ) was particularly distinguished; always firmly supportive without over blown Baroque affectation. Judd drew exhilarating orchestral playing from the excellent ensemble.
The four soloists were all vocal students at Philadelphia's famed Curtis Institute of Music. The two standouts were mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges and tenor Joshua Stewart. Bridges' rich lower register and deeply felt, emotive singing over a wide emotional range proved revelatory both in the joy of O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion and the anguish of He was despised. Stewart, a student of former mezzo-soprano and noted pedagogue Patricia McCaffrey, exuded a noble lyric tenor. In the gentle lyricism of Comfort ye or the fury of Thou shall break them, Stewart was a compelling, musically supple artist. Here is a potentially outstanding Bach and Mozart tenor in the making. Thomas Shivone's bass baritone was problematical. Despite a mellow timbre, Shivone experienced difficulty in the music's lower reaches. Once past the coloratura roulades of Rejoice greatly, soprano Sarah Shafer sang with beauty and simplicity of utterance. I know that my redeemer liveth was a highlight of the performance.
The afternoon definitely belonged to James Judd. A prolonged ovation greeted his outstanding, thoughtfully conceived performance of Handel's timeless masterpiece. At present running a music education program in conjunction with the Miami-Dade County public schools (the Miami Music Project), Judd plans a series of festival concerts at Miami's Arsht Center in May, 2010. South Florida is artistically richer with his return to active music making in the community.