In a gilded back chapel of New York’s Riverside Church, a small ensemble performs the modern premiere of Giuditta, a 1705 oratorio by Baroque composer Domenico Freschi. Five singers play parts in the story of Judith, the woman warrior who seduced and beheaded her peoples’ enemy. Strings, a recorder, and a continuo group cluster onstage, bowing and blowing and tapping in the glow of golden lamps. A countertenor, playing the villainous Olofernes, steals the show with piercing threats. At the front, the violinist serves as conductor, marking tempo with knee bends and nods.
Seated on a creaky wicker chair, I follow the new English translation, flipping through a packet tied with a ribbon. The translator has included meticulous footnotes. The piece is lovely, ornate and contrapuntal. The scene is shadowed and intimate, another quiet moment of excellent New York music-making. But what’s most remarkable isn’t so much the space, the scholarship, or the talent. It’s what happens before the performance and during intermission. In a church hall adjacent to the chapel, musicians and concertgoers sit at round plastic tables sharing potluck dinner and dessert. Eating together isn’t just a fundraising ploy; invitees don’t have to be donors. Rather, the gathering creates opportunities for professionals and concertgoers to ask questions about the music, discuss its texts, and foster connections.
The Academy of Sacred Drama is a fledgling early-music organization founded by the young violinist Jeremy Rhizor. Rhizor grew up in Las Vegas, did undergraduate work at the Eastman School of Music, and earned a graduate degree from Julliard. While at Eastman, he began to explore early music, making “wonderful discoveries” about interpretation and performance practice, finding “answers to questions that [he] didn’t know how to articulate.” Now Rhizor has turned his passion into full-time job. The Academy is an intellectual, artistic society of professional and amateur musicians, as well as patrons interested in the group’s musical or religious work. Over the past year-and-a-half, it has produced eight oratorios around yearly themes. Last year, all the works told the story of Jonah; this year, the story of Judith. The Academy also publishes the Academy Journal, a print and digital compendium of scholarly writing, exegesis, artwork, and poetry relevant to the season’s programming. The group also creates new musical editions and translations, exhuming forgotten music.
As a manuscript editor, Rhizor puzzles over the very conundrums that first drew him to early music, questions of authenticity and expression. He’s particularly interested in the baroque oratorio, a genre he feels is understudied and underperformed. Oratorios, like operas, are long musical works with characters, but they don’t include costumes and sets. Handel’s Messiah is perhaps the most famous example. Characters and plotlines come from Biblical stories or the lives of saints; sometimes, soloists play personified virtues, like Hope or Obedience. Early oratorios were often written in two halves; between the two parts came a sermon, a sneaky move to “re-church” unwitting audiences. As the oratorio popularized, sermons were replaced by receptions; performances were held in fancy palaces rather than churches.
But the Academy of Sacred Drama performs early music other than oratorio—including historia, dialogues, and motets—that tells sacred stories. And its primary goal isn’t scholarship. “If all I wanted to do was pump out new editions,” Rhizor says, “…it wouldn’t matter how many people were there [at the performances]. But what I really want to do is explore oratorio as a community with other people—everyone contributing to a theme, to an idea, to a community of thought around the genre…giving us the opportunity to explore the stories.”