The American soprano, Judith (Anne) Nelson (née Manes), was the daughter of musical parents. She studied music at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she became a leading singer in its noted choir, and obtained her BA Music degree in 1961. On August 5, 1961, she married Alan H. Nelson When she moved with her husband to Berkeley in 1962, she sang with the UC Berkeley Collegium and the Berkeley Chamber Singers. Her principal voice teachers were Thomas Wikman in Chicago, James Cunningham at Berkeley, and Martial Singher in Santa Barbara. She also studied piano for 12 years She sang with music groups of the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley.
Alfred Hertz Memorial Fellowship of the University of California at Berkeley in 1972-1973, enabled Judith Nelson to travel throughout Europe. She made her debut in 1973 in Paris, and began her career as a soloist, traveling in England and continental Europe. She joined the Five Centuries Ensemble, and met Geneviève Thibault de Chambure, who became her Parisian “angel.” She was a founding member of Concerto Vocale, with René Jacobs, William Christie, and Wieland Kuijken, and a soprano soloist with Christopher Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music. She made her operatic debut in Brussels in 1979, singing Drusilla in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione de Poppea with Alan Curtis, a performance repeated at the historic La Fenice in Venice.
Judith Nelson performed and recorded extensively as a soloist throughout the North America, Mexico, Europe, and Asia in concerts, operas, and for radio and Television. She was acknowledged as one of the world’s leading singers of the Baroque repertoire as the early music revival began. She sang with most of the major Baroque ensembles and orchestra in both continents, including the Academy of Ancient Music, Concerto Vocale, the Bay Area’s American Bach Soloists, Magnificat and the San Francisco Bach Choir, Toronto’s Tafelmusik, Joshua Rifkin and The Bach Ensemble, and Massachusetts’ Aston Magna Festival. She also sang in Innsbruck.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Judith Nelson was one of the founders of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and its Board of Directors. She sang and recorded often with the orchestra, and its first office was located in her home. She sang on Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s debut recording, of George Frideric Handel’s Apollo and Daphne, as well as in other works by G.F. Handel and by her other great love, Purcell. On stage, she sang several operas, including G.F. Handel’s Teseo at the Boston Early Music Festival and Sant’Alessio at the Nakamichi Festival in Los Angeles. With harpsichordist Laurette Goldberg and actress Rella Lossy, she formed the Elizabethan Trio. The singer Anna Carol Dudley was invited to join the group, renamed Tapestry. They toured every year with shows combining Renaissance and Baroque music with literature from various countries. Joshua Kosman wrote: “In music of Bach, Handel and countless other composers of the 17th and 18th centuries, Nelson brought a blend of technical panache and expressive fluency to her performances. The graceful elegance of her singing, combined with an ability to traverse the most challenging passages with complete assurance, made her regular appearances count among the reliable delights of the Bay Area's musical life.“
Judith Nelson performed with major symphony orchestras, including the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Although she was particularly noted for he performance of Baroque music, she also introduced compositions by American and English Composers.
Judith Nelson has some 70 recordings to her credit, including LP’s, cassette tapes, and CD’s, many with Harmonia Mundi and L’Oiseau-Lyre. Her recordings with such conductors as Christopher Hogwood and John Eliot Gardiner helped usher in a new era of historically informed performances of Baroque music. Of particular note is her role as first soprano on the Christopher Hogwood classic recording of Messiah, recorded in Westminster Abbey in 1980 for BBC TV and now released on DVD (the Kultur label). The classical performance magazine Music (January 2012) ranks that recording number 25 in a list of “The 50 Greatest Recordings of All Time.” Other notable recording include: Belinda in Dido and Aeneas (Chandos) G.F. Handel's Alceste and La Resurrezione; Haydn:Canzonets and Cantatas, with Koch. International. She also performed on radio: BBC, France, Belgium, Holland, Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Austria. Scandinavia, BBC several Promenade Concerts; and on Television: BBC, (Open University George Frideric Handel's Messiah, Series: Music in Time); ITV.
In September 1989, in recognition of her contributions to music, St. Olaf College conferred upon Judith Nelson the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts. She died peacefully on May 28, 2012 at the close of a 12-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 72. She is survived by her her husband of 51 year, Alan H. Nelson, son Christopher of Taipei, Taiwan, and daughter Jennifer of El Cerrito. She was preceded in death by her father, Virgil Manes, and her mother, Genevieve Ingels Manes.
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s Music Director Nicholas McGegan remarks of Judith Nelson: “In the Academy of Ancient Music, Judy was a frequent guest soloist, often being paired with her good friend Emma Kirkby. Hearing those two together is one of my fondest memories; they really made you believe that angels could descend from heaven. But though Judy sang like a goddess, she was no diva. She was smart, funny, a wonderfully supportive colleague, and a joy to be with. Whenever she appeared on stage, she also radiated warmth and joy in the music making. It was such an honor to have been able to perform with her and to watch the audience be enthralled by her artistry.”
Jonathan Dimmock said: “Her name was synonymous with beauty, with early music style, with youthful fun. Everything about her exemplified grace. Singing was always easy. She enjoyed working with people. She loved to record. She was never in competition with other musicians.”
"To me she was the American early-music soprano," said Jeffrey Thomas, who performed with her often, first as a tenor and then as music director of the American Bach Soloists. "The unique color of her voice, and the warmth of her singing, made her a superstar to me even before I got to know her."