Along with all who were touched by her, I was deeply saddened to learn that soprano Judith Nelson had passed away earlier this year. Few musicians have had a bigger impact on me personally and Magnificat as an ensemble than Judy. She sang in over 40 Magnificat concerts in the 90s and appeared in one of the title roles (along with Paul Hillier) on Magnificat’s first recording, Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo. I also had the privilege of working with Judy in California Bach Society projects and in many other situations. But it was as a friend that I remember Judy the best and it is these memories that I treasure most.
The first thing that comes to mind when I remember Judy is how influential she was and how much everyone tried to sing like her but the second thing I think of is how, in fact, no one ever sounded like Judy except Judy. Of course, she sang exquisitely in every style and genre and yet it was always undeniably Judy. Her great gift to me (and to all of us) was in embodying the ideal of using your talent and ability to express who you are with integrity and conviction, which she did as well as anyone I have ever known.
In rehearsals Judy was always a model of professionalism but she also had a sharp wit and everyone who worked with her has plenty of memories of her playful sense of humor and well-timed rejoinders that always contributed to an atmosphere of camaraderie and common purpose. Judy had a uncanny ability to surprise through her vocal artistry and the depth of her understanding of the historical and musical context of the music she was performing, but also through her disarming candor.
It was Judy who introduced me to the music of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. Judy had invited me to join her at a music festival outside of Manilla in the Philippines in 1996 and she brought with her an extraordinary motet – O quam bonus es – that we performed there. I was overwhelmed, not only by Cozzolani’s extraordinary tonal palette but by the strikingly emotional-laden text. Judy sang in Magnificat’s first performances of Cozzolani’s music in December 1999 and while her voice is not heard on the recordings that we made subsequently, her spirit – the honesty of her artistry and the warmth and sincerity of her musicianship – is present throughout.
A memorial concert to celebrate Judy’s life will take place on Monday September 10 at First Congregational Church in Berkeley. The program will feature many of the musicians and ensembles that shared music with Judy over the years including Magnificat co-founder Susan Harvey. The free concert will begin at 7:00 pm and I encourage everyone to join in remembering a truly remarkable musician and friend.