Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Voices of Music began its San Francisco season with a concert entitled Alessandro Grandi: Venetian Christmas Vespers 1630. The program was structured as a Vespers service organized around five Psalms (109, 110, 111, 112, and 116) appropriate for the Christmas season. The settings of those Psalms, as well as a setting of the Magnificat canticle, were taken from an 1830 publication by the Venetian composer Alessandro Grandi entitled Messa, e salmi (Mass and Psalms) and were all scored for three voices, two high (sopranos Laura Heimes and Jennifer Ellis Kampani) and one low (baritone John Taylor Ward). Remaining sections of the service utilized music by Claudio Monteverdi and Tarquinio Merula, and the piece for the Collect was the solo voice (Heimes) motet “O Intemerata,” published by Grandi in 1620. The evening also included instrumental selections by Biagio Marini, Giovanni Buonamente, and Girolamo Frescobaldi, as well as Merula.
Little is known of Grandi. The biographical section of his entry in Grove Music Online, written by Jerome Roche and Roark Miller, consists of only three paragraphs. Jeffrey Kurtzman informed the audience for his pre-concert talk that Grandi was probably a major figure in one of the earliest attempts to form a musicians’ union in seventeenth-century Venice. This came about because most single appointments did not pay enough for a living wage, meaning that moonlighting was necessary. This led to the problem that, if too many musicians moonlighted on a particular occasion, there might not be enough left to perform at their “real” jobs. The union was formed to try to coordinate moonlighting activities and to pool the revenues for the benefit of all members.
The other outstanding biographical fact is that Grandi died in the summer of 1630 during one of the most devastating plagues in history, which also claimed his wife and ten children; he would have been 41 at the time.
If the Grove account of Grandi’s life is sparse, the page of his works indicates that he was highly industrious. All of his music was vocal, and relatively little of it was secular. He had a variety of ecclesiastic jobs, the most significant of which was probably his appointment in 1620 as vice maestro di cappella, serving as “second in command” under Claudio Monteverdi at St. Mark’s Basilica.
The Grandi selections on last night’s program were all representative of his concertato style, which involves the contrasts of opposing sonorities, vocal and/or instrumental. This style was well served by his three-voice settings, in which the primary contrast is between high and low. Grandi was particularly skilled in handling the two soprano lines, alternating between homophonic harmonies and imitative counterpoint, thus providing two different “perspectives of contrast” with the baritone line. There were also abundant examples of his use of high and low pitch (particularly extremely low) to provide “illustration” of the psalm texts.
Instrumental support was provided by a continuo of cello (William Skeen), archlute (David Tayler), and organ (Hanneke van Proosdij). Violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock, Lisa Grodin, and Carla Moore were also on hand to accompany other vocal pieces and for the instrumental selections. In addition Proosdij switched to recorder to perform a chaconne by Merula involving imitative exchanges with Blumenstock. The most fascinating instrumental work, however, came at the beginning of the evening with a “Sonata in Ecco” (echo) by Marini. Moore performed the solo part at the altar, while Blumenstock and Grodin provided the echoes from opposite sides of the congregation.
As a comprehensive reconstruction of a religious service, the program made for a generous supply of musical offerings, all handled capably by the Voices of Music instrumentalists and the visiting soloists and resulting in a stimulating discovery of an unfamiliar side of the seventeenth-century repertoire.