I recently met harpsichordist/organist Gideon Meir in a Tel Aviv café to hear more about Judith Nelson.
PH: Gidi, how did you meet Judith Nelson?
GM: The first time I heard about her was from British singer Deborah Roberts, who had studied performance of early music with Judith. Then, in 1984, I met harpsichordist Laurette Goldberg here in Israel at an early music workshop, a short while prior to my going to the Bay Area of USA to study with Laurette for three months. She and Judith Nelson were colleagues. Laurette called me up saying I should go to see Judy who was in Israel at the time, that I should attend her classes, go to her concert, present myself and tell her I would be staying in her home to house-sit (while she was still away on tour)! So after attending a fabulous concert in Jerusalem, I did just that. She was very sweet and matter-of-fact about it, told me someone would let me in and that the spare key would be next to the kitchen door! The idea was that I should stay in the house for three weeks and leave on her return, at which time she would find me lodgings with other friends or colleagues. But I ended up staying with the Nelsons for three months (and then again later when I was studying formally at the Conservatory in San Francisco in the Bay Area) becoming a “family fixture”. By this time, their son and daughter were out of the house, the Nelsons were missing their children and I was 22, and still at an age when you like to find make-believe parents. It worked out that way: Judy and Alan became close friends of mine, always very supportive.
PH: What was it like living in the house of this great singer?
GM: For three months, I would wake up to the wonderful sounds of Judy’s singing. Her daily practice consisted of a very free style of warming up; and she always had something to be studied for her next concert – at that time she was singing a Monteverdi opera, among other works. So I would hear her practice and she would hear mine. And, of course, we would have coffee in the kitchen and read newspapers, as in any family situation.
PH: Did you actually hear Judith perform at that time?
GM: Yes. She took me with her to a concert she was performing in the Green Room - a small, elegant and intimate venue in the civic center of San Francisco. (Judith was best in an intimate concert setting.) There she sang the most incredible Purcell songs. Actually, she warmed up for those songs in the car as we were driving over the bridge. Arriving at the center, she went to her dressing-room, put on a blue taffeta gown, came out on stage and sang these gripping Purcell songs from memory! (I heard her practice every day, but she never practiced these songs…)When she sang, there was never a dry eye in the house.
PH: What did you learn from listening to her?
GM: That Judy had the utmost mastery of her repertoire and a free livery of the wonderful texts. Well, she did rehearse with ensembles, but she herself could just wing it. For that reason, her performance was always very fresh, sounding as if she were discovering a work for the first time; you also felt as if you were hearing the songs for the first time. Thus, she was freer and more spontaneous in live performance than in recordings (which she sometimes did at short notice). That evening in the recital in the Green Room I heard her sing “Sweeter than roses”, “If music be the food of love”…all those standards.
GM: Well, back then in 1984 (and I had come from Israel) hearing this repertoire was actually a great rarity. There were few recordings of it but also very little expertise in performing them. It was even difficult to obtain scores. You could usually buy the Britten score, with whatever he had omitted and added; these scores had very little to do with Purcell’s original intentions. Her Purcell repertoire was amazing. Some years later, Judy performed Purcell’s masques with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.
PH: Would you like to talk about was behind Judith’s performing?
GM: Yes. Judy’s ability to take on different characters during the same performance was amazing – whether comic or tragic. In a comic masque duet she sung with Nancy Armstrong, they brought the house down – Judy could be totally funny! That character skill came through her knowledge of British theatre, enriched by the influence of her husband, Alan H. Nelson, Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at the University of California Berkeley. Alan is a world specialist on medieval theatre. Judy had incredible knowledge of what she was singing – of the history, drama, the history of music-making (not only performance practice). Any text she delivered was convincing, simple and virtuosic. With a difficult score that did not look like much on the page, she was the person who could figure it out. For example, Barbara Strozzi was a noble woman and a great singer, but she was not a “professional” composer; Judy managed to get into her mindset – that of the great singer – really doing justice to aspects of the text that otherwise would have been overlooked. Even today, when so much is happening in early music, it seems Judy was right on in those days, and her performance technique was beyond that of her colleagues at a time when performance of early instrumental music was still in flux. If you lived in the Bay Area at that time, you would never want to miss a concert of hers. Judy performed all over the world and very often in festivals – festivals in Malmö, England, the USA, in Latin America, Australia, New Zealand; she was very excited about singing at the Bamboo Organ Festival in the Philippines, where there was a 17th century bamboo organ. I heard her several times at the Boston Early Music Festival and at the Berkeley Early Music Festival. Although Judy’s first preference was performing with Baroque orchestras – and her voice was not very large – she nevertheless sang with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, she sang the Mozart Requiem with the San Francisco Symphony and I remember hearing her singing Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras no.6 with an ensemble of ‘cellists. She also sang contemporary music. Her diction was truly artful: her Italian diction was juicy – not clean and academic – she colored her vowels, her diphthongs were wonderful.
PH: How do you explain her personal charisma?
GM: First of all, she was very much at home on the stage. She looked out at her audience, having direct eye contact with many of her listeners. For performing she would wear contact lenses – one for close sight to read the score and one for distance – to see the audience! Even her occasional memory slip was dealt with intelligently…and she would come off stage laughing! That was the Judy experience.
PH: Where did Judith study and how did she enter the realm of early music in the early days of its revival?
GM: Judy studied at St Olaf College, Minnesota. This was a very important American choral centre. Around 1960, Alan and Judy moved to Berkeley, where she would participate in Musicology classes (the musicologist Alan Curtis was a member of faculty researching vocal music and Baroque opera) and take part in the Collegium Musicum. She displayed great ease in singing, read many clefs effortlessly and had no need of a vocal coach, doing much vocal training by herself. (Judy referred to the voice as an “authentic, original instrument”!) In Berkeley there was much activity in medieval and Renaissance music and it was there that she decided to specialize in early music. The Bay Area was also a hotbed of Baroque musical activity in the 1960s and 1970s, so there were people such as Laurette Goldberg, Susie Napper and Bruce Haynes to work with and try things out. I think Judy did some study with the early (especially medieval) music specialist mezzo-soprano Andrea von Ramm. Andrea von Ramm was convinced that there was no specific way of singing early music, that the context and cultural content were the basis of how it was to be sung. Also, Judy had gone to Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship. She had the ability to go to libraries and find music, familiar with what she was looking at and knowing what she wanted and there she would copy out works by hand. So her work was also musicological. Alan’s sabbatical in Cambridge (UK) brought Judy in contact with Christopher Hogwood and Emma Kirkby and the English early music scene. In Europe, she sang with members of the Kuijken family and Robert Kohnen. Judy was a pioneer in the early music revival, certainly a pioneer in the American early music revival.
PH: Post-war American training focused very much on singing with vibrato. Did Judith express an opinion on vibrato singing?
GM: Yes. She said that automatic vibrato was not a true basis for any style of singing. She knew where to relax the voice and when to exercise a controlled vibrato.
PH: Let’s go back to her recordings.
GM: Here Judy felt she must do the right thing, to please. She was an important artist in recordings of Harmonia Mundi when the company was opening up to the world of Baroque music. She would record duos with René Jacobs. In fact, they would fly her into Paris for a recording before she had even seen the music! Yet she would be superb in the three-day recording session. I particularly love Judy’s recordings of the music of Barbara Strozzi and Luigi Rossi. Listening to these LPs, I remember the gestures and texts that were so convincing in her performance. I believe Judith was the first to record works of Barbara Strozzi and also of Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. And her recordings of Couperin’s “Leçons de Ténèbres” and music of Charpentier were indeed groundbreaking. Recording sessions were very exhausting and there was often a physical price to pay; when Joshua Rifkin made his historic recording of Bach’s B minor Mass, with the one-to-a-part choir in which the soloists sang both solos and choruses, (jokingly referred to as the “Piltdown” Mass), the singers tired their voices to the extent that they needed to use cortisone spray to relieve their vocal cords! Judy spoke of that recording experience as almost impossible! An important milestone was the recording she did as first soprano in Händel’s “Messiah” with Christopher Hogwood in London, the first with authentic instruments. Other highlights were her Philharmonia recordings with Baroque oboist Bruce Haynes, in which she actually matched her vocal timbre to the instrumental environment; also in recordings of Händel works with the magnificent Baroque flute-playing of Janet See.
PH: Who was Geneviève Thibault de Chambure?
GM: Madame de Chambure was Judy’s Parisian “angel”, a patroness of music. This lady had a chateau where she staged concerts; there she had some antique harpsichords. She was also the benefactor of William Christie; Judy worked a lot with William Christie in those days. I have the feeling that some of the texts Judy premiered came from Mme De Chambure’s library.
PH: Did Judith do much teaching?
GM: Judy did not like teaching people technique or how to sing, so she never had a regular teaching job, neither did she have private voice students. But, of course, she held master classes all over the world, working much on interpretation and how to use acoustics. She certainly passed on much knowledge through her copies of texts and translations, which are probably still circulating till today. She always made her library available to all and you knew she might have rare pieces there you could not find anywhere else. Judy joked that the early music revival was made possible by the Xerox machine. I still treasure copies of her music and text translations.
PH: Would you like to mention Judith and Alan Nelson’s community activities?
GM: Yes. They helped people a lot. In 1986, Judy was a founding member of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra – the first Baroque orchestra in western USA (the Philharmonia office was a room in their house!), directed today by Nicholas McGegan. She was an important member of the San Francisco Early Music Society. She and Alan helped young musicians with the acquisition of instruments (they helped me with one of my harpsichords); Judy would supply them with texts or robes or invite them over for coaching. When I prepared concerts with fellow students, I would call her and, if she had time, we would go to her home and play the program to her. We were always keen to hear what she had to say; she made nothing of the fact that she was a great artist and that you might be just a first-year student. There was no snobbery about her. In Philharmonia rehearsals, if an artist was having a hard time, she was ready with a hug; and you could see Judy helping with members’ babies when she was not singing! Judy was a very caring citizen – she attended city council meetings and was on education boards, she always had a political opinion and was exceedingly humanistic.
PH: What brought Judith to Israel?
GM: Judy gave workshops and master classes all over the world, and came to do just that in Israel in 1984. This was new to many people here. She returned twice after that. She was a guest of the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Judy worked a lot on text, on finding your understanding of the text, on encouraging you to make a personal connection with the text, first delivering it in speech voice, being convincing and only then placing it in the singing voice. What was important for her in Baroque performance practice was that singing should not be separated from speech. I remember her explaining about word painting and advocating aesthetic choice. As a teacher she was modest…even humble. And an important point: back in the 1980s, Judy picked up on the fact that there was enthusiasm and hunger for knowledge of early music performance here in Israel and she predicted that Israel, in time, would develop into an important centre of early music.
On her second visit she was joined by Laurette Goldberg; they gave some courses together. I was Laurette’s assistant, so I slept on the floor in one of their rooms at the guesthouse and help with whatever was needed in the classes. On her second visit to Israel – Alan had joined her –I showed them around the Old City of Jerusalem. I still remember how moved she was seeing Mary’s Tomb in all its austerity; walking down those steep stairs to it, she became so aware of going far back in time.
PH: What impressions did Judith’s musicianship leave on you?
GM: A lasting impression. I remember her performances as if they had been yesterday. As a younger musician – I was a student at the time and still inexperienced - my friends became her friends. From her we learned the 17th century vocal gestures and how to recognize them in instrumental music. She, herself, was so clear on this that she never faked a song. She had so much knowledge of the styles of late-medieval music, early- and late Renaissance and also of Baroque music; she had engaged in much dialogue on these styles with top people in the field. She was the model of how all music should be performed – in a fresh, personal way and her aim was to share her enjoyment of it. Many of today’s early musicians sing with very fine technique and interesting ornamentation, but the freshness Judy brought to music is something I will never forget.
PH: And as a person?
GM: Judy was good with people; she was curious and compassionate. She was supportive of young musicians and wanted to share her knowledge with others. Five minutes’ of Judy’s support and a hug was something you would keep for your entire life. Judy was a wonderful friend and would call people up spontaneously, arrange a spontaneous meeting. In working on performance, she would sometimes place her hands on the accompanist’s shoulders and, her way of communicating what she wanted – tempo, rhythm, small changes to make a phrase soar, etc. I was present at the various holidays celebrated at the Nelson home, and, of course, Judy would always sing for us - anything from Guillaume de Machaut to Tom Lehrer, to the Beatles!
PH: Gidi, you have heard so much performance by Judith Nelson. What works remain highlights for you?
GM: The Italian songs and Purcell’s songs. When she sang “Sweeter than Roses” she was so very convincing…as if she herself had just been kissed for the first time!
PH: And now that Judy is gone….
GM: Since her passing, I have spent much time thinking and remembering. I would say she is the most evolved person I have ever met. There was some perfection about the way everything came together in her: commitment to her work, to her family, to the musical community around her and to the community at large (to homeless people, to the issue of AIDS, etc.) and she had a wonderfully cheerful personality.