After eight years, James Judd returns to Florida podium to conduct “Messiah”

By David Fleshler

The converted garage in the home off Las Olas Boulevard is clearly the lair of a master musician. The upper shelves are stuffed with CDs and books, including a complete Grove’s Dictionary. Two scores for Mendelssohn’s Elijah lie on the grand piano. Apart from the treadmill in the middle of the room, it is a studio in which Brahms or Mahler would feel at home.

James Judd, who led the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra until the brink of its ugly collapse in 2003, quietly returned to Fort Lauderdale about four years ago. He will return more publicly next month when he conducts the Master Chorale of South Florida in Handel’s Messiah, a Christmas perennial that was one of his calling cards at the helm of the Florida Philharmonic.

This will mark his first appearance on a podium in South Florida since 2001. In the intervening years, he took over the highly regarded New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, which he led on several tours, including its first appearance at London’s BBC Proms. He guest-conducted in Tokyo, Wales and many other places. That week he was preparing to fly to Rio to conduct the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, and this spring he is looking forward to conducting both of Elgar’s symphonies in Tokyo.

The Messiah performances will take place in Boca Raton, Miami, and, most significantly, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts—the Fort Lauderdale venue where Judd presided over opening night in 1991 and the scene of many of the Florida Philharmonic’s memorable performances.

The English conductor insists he has no bitterness about the demise of the orchestra he spent 16 years building and that starved for lack of funds in a region of 80-foot yachts, $5-million-dollar houses and real estate fortunes.

“It was awfully sad,” said Judd. “I’m just somebody who doesn’t harbor grudges. I don’t have enemies.

“I don’t think I could have done any more,” he added. “At the time I did everything I could think of. ”

In its death throes, like a dying star populating the universe with rare elements, the Florida Philharmonic shed musicians who would become a vigorous part of South Florida’s music scene. The Boca Raton Symphonia, which will perform in Messiah, includes several former members of the defunct orchestra. And the Master Chorale began life as the Florida Philharmonic Chorus, mounting a successful effort to break free as the orchestra went down, establishing itself as a respected interpreter of the classics of the choral repertoire.

Jo-Michael Scheibe, the Master Chorale’s former artistic director, who has worked with Judd on previous Messiah performances, said Judd shows a sensitivity to the needs and capabilities of the chorus not shared by many of his colleagues on the podium.

“He understands a lot about the voice,” said Scheibe, now chairman of the department of choral and sacred music at the University of Southern California. “He comes at it from a singer’s perspective, and some conductors don’t. He’s very concerned about what’s going on vocally. His Messiah is really quite strong. He has a great sense of the excitement, the drama, the pacing.

“I loved working with him,” Scheibe added. “I feel him to be a man of great integrity and great musical insight. I found it very difficult after he left.”

After living for a few years in the southwest London neighborhood of Richmond, Judd returned to Fort Lauderdale with his wife Valerie, a violist who will perform in Messiah, and their daughter Carissa, now 15. He estimates he’s out of town 80 percent of the time to conduct. When in town he studies scores, cooks for friends — at the moment he was fretting about the difficulty of finding a good farmer’s market in South Florida — and works on the Miami Music Project, his grant-funded program to bring music to school children. His wife and daughter keep horses in Davie.

Although he has lived out of the local spotlight for the past few years, Judd said he’s eagerly anticipating his return to the podium for Messiah. “I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing old friends.”

He will be donating his services for the performances to help the Master Chorale raise money. He will also attend a $60-per-person Meet the Maestro fundraiser after the Broward Center matinee.

At the first rehearsal for next month’s Messiah performances, there was tension in the air, said Mark Glickman, president of the Master Chorale. “Everyone was so excited – James is coming back,” he said. “Not only because he’s such a wonderful conductor, but there was nostalgia, and he was coming back to us. The singers were prepared. The notes, the runs, were perfect. He was pleased.”

Although Judd professes to be looking forward, not back, Glickman said the symbolism of his first local podium appearance since the Florida Philharmonic’s death weighs on the conductor.

“He’s very conscious of that,” he said. “This is his first appearance so it has to be perfect.”

James Judd conducts Handel’s Messiah 8 p.m. Dec. 4 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Miami; 8 p.m. Dec. 5 at Spanish RIver Church in Boca Raton; and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. 954-418-6232;

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3 Responses to “After eight years, James Judd returns to Florida podium to conduct “Messiah””

  1. Posted Nov 23, 2009 at 5:27 pm by Nena Trotogott

    It is wonderful to have him back in South Florida. I hope we see more of him and his family.
    Best of everything from a former chorus member.

  2. Posted Nov 24, 2009 at 11:44 am by Joyce K. Reynolds

    Thank you, David, for this magnificent story. For those of us who died a little with the Florida Philharmonic, it is the happiest of times to be singing again under Judd’s baton.
    I hope the whole community celebrates with us!

  3. Posted Dec 02, 2009 at 10:49 pm by michael a. taddonio

    Good that James Judd is back in South Florida. Perhaps he could, with a lot of help, get a full time professional symphony orchestra in South Florida. If so, it would have to start small and work its ways to big time. Management would have to be professional and competent. Public support is an absolute must.

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Mon Nov 23, 2009
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