Ann Arbor Grail Singers rediscover and will perform long-lost Gasparini work
Something old, something new. That’s precisely what’s on hand Sunday afternoon at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church when the Ann Arbor Grail Singers, a 16-voice women’s choir specializing in early music, performs a Mass by Francesco Gasparini that dates from the early 1700s.
What’s new about a piece composed some 300 years ago? Until a choir member discovered the complete and accurate autograph score, and until the Grail’s director, Carmen Cavallaro, prepared a performing edition, the work has sat in a vault, dormant and mostly unheard. Sunday’s performance marks the work’s Ann Arbor premiere.
The story began three years ago in England, where choir member Stephanie Rosenbaum repairs each summer for an early music workshop at Cambridge University. She spied a movement from the mass sitting on a table piled with stacks and stacks of music that had been used in small-group reading sessions, in which workshop participants read through whatever the tutors have brought.“It was not my group that had worked on it,” Rosenbaum said. “But I looked at it, and it was a natural for women’s voices.” The mass, for five high voices—in other words, for five parts—was indeed written for women. Gasparini composed it for the women singers of the Pio Ospedale della Pieta in Venice, where he was Maestro di Coro from 1701-1713 (and where he had the good sense and taste to employ Antonio Vivaldi).
Rosenbaum asked if she could borrow the music—a faded photocopy. “I rushed across the street to the local equivalent of Kinko’s to copy it,” she said. “That started our detective activities.”
Back stateside, she showed the music to director Cavallaro, who thought the group should learn it. They did, performing it from copies of the faint photocopy Rosenbaum had snared in England.
Their appetite was whetted for more, and the hunt for the rest of the piece was on.
The University of Michigan music library helped identify Rosenbaum’s copy as coming from a 1920s edition of the mass; New York University was among the libraries that had the full score. But when Cavallaro discovered, in an online search, that the autograph copy of the score reposed at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, it became, well, the holy grail.
Obstacles remained, as they always do in grail quests. Rosenbaum assumed at first she could get permission to copy the 44-page score on another trip to England. Nope, not possible. But the Fitzwilliam had a microfilm of the delicate manuscript. That sounded promising, except that the microfilm was too fragile to be handled as well.
The situation, said Rosenbaum, “pointed out what a difference there is between conservation and use. They are a museum, trying to keep the manuscript pristine, and meanwhile there are musicians who want to go live, to perform it.”
Eventually a solution was found: the Fitzwilliam Image Library agreed to photograph the microfilm at a price that was still high for a small non-profit like the Grail Singers, but affordable with donations from some of the members.
Cavallaro set to work to create a performing edition that reflects exactly what Gasparini wrote.
“For me, it’s been a thrill,” he said in a phone call.
Today, Cavallaro said, Gasparini is known mainly as an influential teacher and writer of treatises on music. But he wrote many operas, and Cavallaro said the operatic influence is clear in the Mass for Five High Voices.
“In the music for this mass, you can tell he is an opera composer,” Cavallaro said. “It’s bubbly and joyous, “ so much so, he said, that you scratch you head and say, ‘This is a mass?’ It’s more an opera chorus, with beautiful melodies.”
Gasparini divided the mass into solos, duets, trios and ensembles; for Sunday’s performance, soprano Lorna Young Hildebrandt, well-known in early music circles, joins the Grail Singers. Debra Lonergan and Shin Hwang accompany the choir on viola da gamba and chamber organ.
If you miss the premiere, you can still look forward to hearing this mass again. Cavallaro hopes to make the performing edition available to other groups; the Grail Singers plan to make it the focus of their fourth CD.
For Rosenbaum, the quest has been a pleasure, and the grail, now in hand, has been well worth the search. The music looked good to her when she read it that day, some three years back, at Cambridge.
“Once we sang it, I realized it was way better than I even thought.”