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SFCV Preview: Madrigals, Motets (& Cantatas!) by Alessandro Grandi

San Francisco Classical Voice posted the following excellent preview by Steven Winn of Magnificat’s upcoming concerts featuring the music of Alessandro Grandi. The original post is here.

For anyone who cares about 17th-century music, 2010 is without question a Claudio Monteverdi year. The 400th anniversary of the composer’s ground-breaking and magisterial Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) of 1610 is a ripe occasion to program the sacred masterpiece of an artist deemed “the creator of modern music” by scholar Leo Schrade.

It’s an opportunity that Magnificat Baroque wasn’t about to miss. The Bay Area ensemble concludes its 18th season with an April 23-25 slate of Vespers concerts.

But before they get there, the troupe is embarked on an unusual and revealing side-trip through Monteverdi territory, with the composer’s lesser-known Venetian contemporary Alessandro Grandi as the destination. To make this journey even more enticing, Magnificat is offering a striking historical contrast to the well-known Vespers: The Feb. 12-14 Grandi programs feature what may well be modern premieres of some of the first self-identified cantatas ever written. The feat has generated considerable interest around the early-music world.

More important, these concerts figure to be an alluring discovery for audiences. In addition to the short solo cantatas on the program, performed by soprano Laura Heimes, Magnificat’s trio of Celeste fiori concerts will include assorted Grandi madrigals and motets, as well as instrumental music published at the time the composer lived in Venice.

Like other fine composers doomed to live in the long shadow of a game-changing genius (think Salieri), Grandi has remained a dim figure. “His main problem, ” said Magnificat Artistic Director Warren Stewart by phone, “is the understandable tendency of musical historians to look first at towering figures when they’re rediscovering a period. So the natural focus in early-17th-century Italian music was Monteverdi.” Stewart spoke from Washington, D.C., where he had just attended a Vespers performance at the National Gallery of Art — the second account of the work that week in the city. The towering figures do go on towering.

Grandi, 10 to 15 years younger than Monteverdi, “was talented and prolific before he got to Venice and on an upward career trajectory,” said Stewart. It was there that his and his more illustrious contemporary’s paths crossed, at San Marco Cathedral. In the city’s most important church, Grandi quickly ascended the ranks to become vice maestro to Monteverdi.

According to Steven Saunders, a professor of music at Maine’s Colby College, “evidence suggests that Grandi’s rise in stature under these conditions may have occasioned resistance and event resentment” by Monteverdi, who considered moving back to Mantua. Seen this way, it’s the older Monteverdi who’s cast as the Salieri figure, with Grandi as the fast-rising and threatening Mozart of his day. But fate, not to mention the fact of Monteverdi’s indisputable singularity, had a different hand to deal. After a decade in Venice, Grandi moved on to Bergamo in 1627 and died there in a devastating plague three years later. Monteverdi survived for another 13 years.

Doing Grandi in a Monteverdi year was “a very conscious decision,” said Stewart, who argues that the younger composer’s strophic bass cantatas “employ a variation technique that was immediately imitated by many other Venetian composers, including Monteverdi, in the 1620s.” Citing Grandi’s “very clear tonal sense,” “modern-sounding harmonies,” and a “buoyant and confident musical architecture,” Stewart made a case for even broader influence. “Clearly, [Heinrich] Schutz [German, 1585-1672] learned a lot from Grandi,” he said.

The cantatas on the Magnificat program vary in length from three to six minutes. Brief as they may be, their importance, according to Jeffrey Kurtzman, general editor of a forthcoming complete Grandi edition, “lies in the very first use of the word cantata in a music publication. The multi-sectional structure of these solo pieces lays the groundwork for sectional organization of the later solo cantata.” Over a repeated continuo bass figure, different vocal melodies, or strophic variations, yield different emphases, cadences, and emotional impact.

Apparently lost in the general neglect of the early Baroque, the pieces survived in manuscripts that had a perilous history of their own. First published in 1620, Grandi’s Cantade et arie a voce sola survived into the 20th century, as far as musicologists knew, only in a copy at Breslau’s University Library. In the Russian siege of that German city in 1945, the library was hit and some of the music collection set on fire. The Grandi collection was not among those works librarians managed to save by tossing them into an adjacent river. A largely impenetrable transcription of the manuscript, by the musicologist Alfred Einstein, remained at Smith College in Massachusetts.

That appeared to be the end of the trail until 2008, when a copy of Grandi’s published cantatas and other solo vocal works came to light from a huge private collection in Spain. Dinko Fabris, an Italian scholar and lute player, explained the discovery in a message to the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music.

“Some twenty years ago,” recalled Fabris, “I visited for the first time in Seville my good friend Señor Rodrigo de Zayas and I saw in his marvelous private library (30,000 volumes), among other treasures, the only surviving copy of the [Grandi] book.” Respecting his “obligations to the discretion” of the collector, Fabris kept silent. Many years later, after moving to Madrid, de Zayas decided to authorize publication of an edition by the Royaumont Foundation in France. A modern-day Grandi “premiere” concert was mounted in Royaumont in fall 2008.

The three cantatas and two other “new” Grandi vocal works on the February program here came to Magnificat from a transcription prepared by a Ph.D. student in Rome, Giulia Giovani, of yet another scholar, Agostino Ziino, who apparently knew of the Spanish collection’s Grandi treasure even before Fabris. Kurtzman, who is a Magnificat advisory board member as well the Grandi edition editor, served as the conduit.

One way or another, some four centuries later, Grandi was destined to find his way back into live performance. Pleased as he is to be a newsmaker, Stewart is just as excited — probably more so — to give the full range of Grandi’s music the attention it deserves. After a pretty thorough discussion of Grandi by phone, the Magnificat director kept thinking of more things he wanted to say about the composer.

In an effusive e-mail, Stewart limned Grandi’s originality and innovations. “He was among the first to include violins in solo vocal music, specifically in his motets. He integrated the violins (always a pair) in a variety of ways — with ritornelli as well as in more thorough-going dialogue with the voice.” The violin writing in the motets, Stewart added, “is fluid and idiomatic” and undoubtedly responsive to “the talented instrumentalists with whom he worked at San Marco.”

Being all but for forgotten for 400 years, it seems, has its own rewards. The pleasures of rediscovery are all that much keener.

Steven Winn is the former arts and culture critic of The San Francisco Chronicle and a frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and Utne Reader, among other publications. His memoir, Come Back, Como: Winning the Heart of a Reluctant Dog, was published by Harper on October 1.
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