Academy of Sacred Drama: The Year of Judith

It’s summer, and harpsichord concerts have slowed down in New York City, which gives me a chance to look back at last season and mention an ambitious new series.

Violinist Jeremy Rhizor, the artistic director of the Academy of Sacred Music, has rapidly established his Academy as an exciting offshoot of the expanding New York early-music scene, which draws largely from Juilliard’s baroque program. Each season Rhizor and his musicians explore forgotten oratorios and cantatas on a particular biblical theme. In 2017–2018, the second year of the series, the focus was on Judith (the seductive, formidable heroine gruesomely depicted in Renaissance and baroque art with the severed head of Holofernes, the enemy of her people); next season the central figure will be Moses. I unfortunately missed the first season because of scheduling conflicts but was delighted to attend two concerts during The Year of Judith.

Last March, at Corpus Christi Church in New York City, the core work was Giuditta by Antonio Draghi (1634–1700), with supplementary works by Alessandro Scarlatti, Giovanni Legrenzi, Francesco Durante, and Draghi himself. By Handelian standards, Draghi’s oratorio is downright short, maybe 40–45 minutes long, but there’s much to savor in this dramatic musical sermon. I use the word sermon loosely, of course, because in the original production, a genuine sermon would have been delivered between the two parts of the oratorio, whereas in this performance, we were edified with an engaging lecture about the oratorio presented by the distinguished singer and author Judith Malafronte, who was—to my surprise—also the harpsichord continuo player for the evening.

The project required a daunting amount of work. Jeremy Rhizor and his team, for example, created a modern edition of the oratorio; Dr. Elisabeth K. Pace produced an English translation; and the Academy published a glossy booklet with numerous essays and related writings by various experts in the field. In addition to Jeremy Rhizor and Judith Malafronte, the performers were Fiona Gillespie Jackson and Sara MacKimmie Tomlin, sopranos; Padraic Costello, countertenor; Gene Stenger, tenor; Jonathan Woody, bass-baritone; Lewis Baratz, recorder; Evan Few, violin; Arnie Tanimoto, viola da gamba; Parker Ramsay, harp; and Adam Cockerham, theorbo. These are skilled artists who know how to make this neglected repertoire live. I’ve posted a short video of the finale to Part One (see below), which gives an idea of the work and the performance, and will soon post a longer set of excerpts on the Quill Classics YouTube Channel.

In May, another Judith concert took place, a smaller-scale recital in the more intimate Christ Chapel at Riverside Church. The fare was Gallic on this occasion, with cantatas on the Judith theme by Sébastien de Brossard (1655–1730) and Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665–1729), gorgeously sung by two sopranos: Amanda Sidebottom (my frequent duo partner) and Sarah Brailey (my Brooklyn neighbor until recently). Along with the two cantatas, we were treated to La Guerre’s Suite in A Minor, played by Parker Ramsay, who was the harpist in the previous Judith concert and who is known for his work as an organist. (In fact, some of the clever modulations added to the theme of the Chaconne—one of the rondeau variety—seemed like the kind of device one hears more often on the organ than on the harpsichord, but they certainly made me sit up and take notice.) Jeremy Rhizor also played one of La Guerre’s exquisite violin sonatas, with gambist Sarah Stone, and Professor Michele Cabrini offered commentary on the two cantatas.

I very much look forward to the upcoming Moses season, and I’ll add that the Academy is generous in providing food and drink to the guests.




Draghi: Giuditta, Part 1 Finale (Academy of Sacred Drama)