Letter from the Publisher

by Jeremy Rhizor

Jeremy Rhizor speaks at an oratorio performance on November 17, 2017 at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in New York City.

In the Book of Judith, the city of Bethulia controls the mountain pass through which the invading forces of Holofernes must travel to reach the city of Jerusalem and its Temple. The forces of Holofernes cut off Bethulia’s water supply, and Judith alone stands between the desire of her people to surrender and the intentions of Holofernes. If Bethulia was to surrender, the people of Bethulia would have to submit to the control of the invaders or be slaughtered, and the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem would be destroyed.

Judith walks a very fine line between making the situation of her people even worse than it already is and saving her people. She has limited power and does not control armies, and her bold plan has a high chance of failure. However, she responds to the situation at hand with a deep self-awareness and a firm trust in her God. She woos Holofernes and cuts off his head in the night. This one brave action changes the fate of her entire people.

Although we might not be able to relate directly to her method, her story is an incredibly empowering message for people of every age. It encourages us to believe that radical positive change does not come from fame or military strength or money. Rather, positive change comes about when we respond to the call of the circumstance at hand by courageously pursuing the highest good with a deep understanding of the value of our goal.

The story of Judith has been used historically as both a personal and a communal appeal to rise against the forces of evil (or the power of the invader) and to embrace one’s identity as it relates to God and neighbor. In today’s world the challenge of the Book of Judith can be tricky to confront. Everyone seems to be able to identify wrongdoing in others, but we often seem to overlook our own corrupted intentions and lack an understanding of what is truly good.

The Academy of Sacred Drama’s timely focus on the story of Judith is a rousing and hopeful response to pervasive currents of contemporary discontent. To begin to respond to the realities of our own time, we turn first to the lessons of history. In this Academy Journal, Abigail Storch recalls an epic Anglo-Saxon poem that follows the life of Judith and parallels Beowulf in the age of the Viking invasions. Jane Tylus reminds us that, fittingly, dozens of Judith-themed oratorios were written during the time of the Ottoman-Venetian and Ottoman-Austrian Wars. And Elena Ciletti explores meditations on the Judith story from late Renaissance and early Baroque art.

We bring the Judith story to modern times in an interview with Tony Ssembaya who is changing the conditions of his Ugandan community by enabling access to education for children. And we highlight the efforts of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale as they explore other sacred-dramatic musical themes in a review of a Yale Schola Cantorum performance by Christopher Browner.

This Academy Journal is just the starting point for ongoing discussions, and it is released in preparation for our upcoming performances of Antonio Draghi’s Oratorio di Giuditta. Our March 9, 2018 performance at Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, CT will mark the North American premiere of Draghi’s seventeenth century exploration of the Judith story. And on March 10, 2018 we will perform for Academy members and New York City concert goers at Corpus Christi Church.

Academy oratorio performances are opportunities to engage both emotionally and intellectually with the timeless stories of the oratorio repertoire, and they provide a unique opportunity to make friends and explore opportune topics. As an artistic and intellectual academy, and as people of goodwill, let us courageously respond to the challenges of our time and circumstances. May we enrich our communities with great ideas, acts of charity, and well-placed creations in art and music.

Jeremy Rhizor is a violinist, the artistic director of the Academy of Sacred Drama, and the publisher of the Academy Journal. He dedicates his time to exploring the world of sacred dramatic music and searching for appropriate boundaries in our understanding of the communal and individual nature of humanity.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 2 (2018) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Yale Schola Cantorum Performs Heinrich Schütz’s Weihnachts-Historie

By Christopher Browner

Baroque painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus surrounded by angels in a painting by Carlo Maratta from 1655
The Holy Night, 1655 (oil on canvas) by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713); Gemäldegalerie, Dresden; PD-1923 (out of copyright)

The superbly talented singers of Yale Schola Cantorum, Yale Institute of Music’s chamber choir for the performance of sacred music, were still in the holiday spirit on January 27, 2018, when they offered a radiant performance of Heinrich Schütz’s Weihnachts-Historie (Christmas Story), SWV 435 to a packed audience at New Haven’s Christ Church. The evening — which also featured a selection of other Christmas-themed works by Schütz — showcased the ensemble’s accomplished musicianship under the direction of their principal conductor, David Hill.

The first half of the concert comprised six standalone pieces all centered on the birth of Christ — from a jubilant rendition of the choral “Hodie Christus natus est,” SWV 456 to an intimate yet engaging duet for soprano and countertenor “Ave Maria, gratia plena,” SWV 334 to a setting of the Marian “Magnificat,” SWV 468 replete with vivid text painting. Throughout, the choir sang in taut harmony, even in passages of richly textured polyphony, as in “Das Wort ward Fleisch,” SWV 385, with its text taken from the opening lines of the Gospel of John. And while the nearly 30-member ensemble was always at the forefront, the first half also featured many moments of excellent solo singing, most notably the bright tenors of Haitham Haidar and James Reese and the focused, ethereal soprano of Addy Sterrett.

After a brief intermission, the group returned for the centerpiece of the program, Weihnachts-Historie, a sung, quasi-theatrical account of the Nativity story that stitched together various biblical passages and sacred hymns. A series of scenes connected by a single narrator, the Evangelist, the bulk of the singing lay with Reese, who impressed not only with his stamina but also with his agile voice and penetrating timbre. Sterrett reappeared as the Angel of Lord, again executing the challenging music with crystalline tone and adept precision. Bass-baritone Matt Sullivan was a commanding King Herod, and countertenor Bradley Sharpe, mezzo-soprano Ashley Mulcahy, and Haidar blended nicely as shepherds. The chorus, this time playing a more supporting role, further enhanced the storytelling.

Note must be made of the accomplished Baroque orchestra that accompanied the evening’s proceedings. In addition to a full compliment of strings, the 16-person ensemble featured fluttering recorders — skillfully played by Grant Herreid and Mack Ramsey — dulcian, theorbo, and a brass section that included trumpets, cornets, and sackbuts. Throughout the evening, Hill marshaled all the musical forces with energy and passion, qualities that clearly translated into the group’s spirited performance.

Christopher Browner is the Associate Editor at the Metropolitan Opera and served as Opera Critic for the Columbia Daily Spectator between 2012 and 2016. In addition to his writing, he has directed operas in New York and Connecticut and regularly gives guests lectures for the Columbia University Music Department.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 2 (2018) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0