Review: Staged concert ‘The Chevalier’ shines a light on an unjustly forgotten black genius

Joseph Bologna was a singular figure in the annals of music. Born in 1745 to a French plantation owner and slave mother in the Caribbean island colony of Guadeloupe and educated in Paris, Bologna defied vicious racism to become one of the world’s most celebrated composers and violin virtuosos. of his time.

Yet even many people deeply rooted in classical music are unfamiliar with Bologna’s work. This should come as no surprise, as for more than two centuries after his death in 1799 his name was unjustly forgotten. Bill Barclay — the writer and director of “The Chevalier,” a Bologna concert playing on three Chicago-area stages on consecutive nights (February 18-20) — hadn’t heard of him until 2018.

The recent focus on social justice and racial inequality in the United States since the murder of George Floyd has influenced the classical music world and brought belated recognition to a number of long-neglected black composers. Among the beneficiaries is Bologna, better known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a knighthood conferred on him by the King of France Louis XV.

Barclay’s conception actually predates the explosive events of 2020, as he premiered “The Chevalier” at the Tanglewood Learning Center in 2019. He had learned that Bologna could have been a contender for World’s Most Interesting Man at its time. As a teenager, he first gained acclaim as a champion swordsman. As he climbed the musical ladder from performer to conductor to composer, Bologna crossed paths with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and became a music teacher to Marie-Antoinette, queen of King Louis XVI, in the years preceding the French Revolution.

His relationships (real or embellished) with these enduring but unfortunate historical figures provide the dramatic context for “The Knight”. The theatrical performances are paired with samples of Bologna’s music performed by Chicago’s Music of the Baroque orchestra under the direction of artistic director Lady Jane Glover, with soloist Brendon Elliott taking a star turn channeling the violin virtuosity of Bologna.

The piece was performed Sunday at the Symphony Center after being presented Friday at the Kehrein Center for the Arts in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago and Saturday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. The action takes place in 1778 in the house of Bologna which he shared for three months with Mozart – a period when the Austrian prodigy mourned the death of his mother – and at the Palace of Versailles.

The play is a serious and often dramatically compelling vignette of Bologna life. He is performed by R.

Joseph Bologna’s role as Marie Antoinette’s (Merritt Janson) music teacher is a key plot element in The Knight. Photo by Elliot Mandel.

J Foster in his unlikely rise to greatness and stardom, his risk-taking to abolish slavery in the French colonies, and his frustrations when his ambitions are thwarted by racism (his candidacy for the direction of the Paris Opera is thwarted by three divas who threaten to quit rather than follow the instructions of a “mulatto”).

David Joseph plays Mozart, who seems destined to be portrayed forever as a hyperactive and casual force of nature. Marie Antoinette – portrayed throughout history as a frivolous elitist snob, her execution during the Reign of Terror of the Revolution acclaimed by the French masses – receives much more sympathetic treatment in “Le Chevalier”. Merritt Janson plays her as a talented amateur musician, sensitive to Bologna’s abolitionist fervor and her ambitions to run the Paris Opera, but powerless to help her.

The only other character is Captain Pierre Cholderlos de Laclos, played by the playwright Barclay as a pompous egoist who shares the popular opinion that he is the foremost author of his time (he wrote Dangerous relationships, on which the hit 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons was based). Laclos was also the librettist of Bologna’s first opera.

Although driven by good intentions, the success of “Le Chevalier” as a drama is somewhat constrained by the format of the staged concert. The actors take center stage, their only decor being a simple table. The characters are voiced in unaccented English, which can make it difficult to connect with the historical figures they represent.

Soloist Brendon Elliott’s channeling of Joseph Bologna’s violin virtuosity was a highlight of the Chevalier. Photo by Elliot Mandel.

There are also some awkward changes during the music lesson scenes, where Elliott plays the Bologna parts on the violin and Yasuko Oura replaces Janson as Marie Antoinette on the fortepiano. However, the talent of these musicians was the highlight of the evening. Elliott adopted the difficult rapid-fire technique in the solos Bologna wrote for himself and won the loudest applause during the closing salutes.

A group of 16 instrumentalists from the Orchester de la Musique baroque skilfully provided the soundtrack for the evening with excerpts from 13 compositions from Bologna, as well as a piece by Christoph Willibald Gluck depicted as a favorite of Antoinette and two of Mozart.

If “Le Chevalier” doesn’t fit perfectly into a quasi-play, a quasi-concert, it deserves a tricorn hat-trick to bring a long-neglected genius to life and set it apart from the often-applied backhanded compliment. to him as the “black Mozart”.

The music of the baroque quickly shifts to a different vision of black artists with “McGill Plays Mozart”. These concerts feature Chicago native Anthony McGill, the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. One of the few black solos in one of our nation’s orchestras, McGill is about to perform what some consider the finest piece of music ever written, the Clarinet Concerto in A major, K.622 of Mozart. Tickets for the Sunday, February 27 show at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts are sold out; tickets for the Monday, February 28 performance at the Harris Theater in Chicago are between $25 and $95 and can be bought here.