It’s a testament to the vision and endurance of Rose Sperrazza that the group she founded six years ago is still going strong. The Chicago Clarinet Ensemble is in residence at Northeastern Illinois University, where Sperrazza works as a tenured music professor. Thus far, the CCE has commissioned eight works for clarinet ensemble; it ranges from 2 to 35-plus members and has appeared everywhere from the University of Iowa to broadcasts on WFMT-FM 98.7 FM.
“My mother is completely responsible for my love of music,” says Sperrazza, who lives on Chicago’s Northwest Side. “She played piano and sang quite a lot during her teenage years; consequently, when she married and began to have children, she wanted to be sure we appreciated music.” Both Sperrazza’s parents are of Italian stock; her maternal grandfather is from Felitto in Naples, while her father’s parents came to America from Serradifalco in Sicily.
“When my mom was pregnant with me in 1966, she constantly played music,” Sperrazza recalls. “I guess she thought I could hear it from inside the womb and apparently she was right. To this day I absolutely fall apart whenever I hear Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ — mom’s favorite.”
Growing up, Sperrazza woke on Sunday mornings to the smell of pasta sauce and the sounds of “Arriverderci Roma,” “Come Back to Sorrento,” “O Solo Mio,” “and of course, ‘Pepino the Italian Mouse,'” she recalls. Her older sister introduced her to clarinet and took her to private lessons. Starting at age 9, Sperrazza studied for nearly 11 years with William Gasbarro, a Juilliard-trained musician (and also of Italian lineage).
“He was a genius pedagogue who became my mentor and the most important musical influence of my life,” Sperrazza says of Gasbarro. “He passed away in 1986 but is always in my thoughts.”
Sperrazza earned a master’s from the University of Akron and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Clarinet Performance. Still, she wasn’t certain of the CCE’s prospects before its inaugural performance in 2007. “Once I found members for the ensemble, and guest artists, I became very nervous we wouldn’t have an audience,” she recalls. “But the hall was packed and people were standing in the aisles, so I knew it was just the beginning.”
Sperrazza is also a dedicated mentor who develops young professionals by seating them alongside seasoned veterans. She also works hard on her own chops: “In the last 10 years I’ve done a lot of solo performing as well as with many groups, from chamber ensembles to symphony orchestras and everything in between,” she says. “I’ve also done quite a few live broadcasts on WFMT. For me that’s particularly nerve wracking, but also extremely valuable in terms of growth.”
Yet for Sperrazza, it all comes back to her roots: “I’m so grateful to have been brought up in an Italian-American family,” she says. “Their love and support shaped and influenced my life in very specific ways. My mother taught me I’m capable of doing anything I dream of; my father taught me love doesn’t need to be verbalized to be real.’
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