A forgotten Black composer is heard again in Music of the Baroque’s compelling ‘The Chevalier’
Between musical excerpts, dramatized scenes bring into focus the life of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, as well as the perilous times in which he lived.
History can be cruel. An accomplished person who deserves to be remembered is sometimes all but forgotten.
That was certainly the case with Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a multifaceted and prominent 18th-century French figure who was at once a champion fencer, vocal abolitionist, military officer and, perhaps most important, master violinist, conductor and composer.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Music of the Baroque at Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan
Info: (312) 294-3000; cso.org
But Bologne was also Black. He was born in the French-Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe, the son of a white plantation owner and his wife’s African slave, and his mixed race goes far in explaining why he unfairly fell into virtual obscurity after his death in 1799.
“The Chevalier,” a compelling new concert theater work, seeks to at least partially right this wrong. The 90-minute creation, performed with no intermission, puts Bologne’s life and music back in the spotlight.
Music director Jane Glover and the Chicago-based Music of the Baroque are presenting this hybrid creation in a series of three performances in different area venues, including one Saturday evening at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
It is billed as the Midwest premiere but Bill Barclay, who conceived, wrote and directed “The Chevalier,” considers it to be the work’s full-blown debut. An earlier version, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was presented in a stage reading in 2019.
Barclay, director of music in 2012-19 at Shakespeare’s Globe, a renowned theater in London, was astonished to learn about Bologne in 2018 when two people brought him the idea for a possible show, and he set right to work. What resulted is “The Chevalier” — neither a traditional concert nor a conventional play but an interdisciplinary work that leans toward the latter.
The piece, set in 1778, features a solo violinist (Brendon Elliott) and four first-rate actors in French revolutionary costumes who perform fictionalized scenes from Bologne’s life in front of an on-stage orchestra of 16 musicians. The only sets are a table, two chairs and four stools.
Featured as supporting characters are Marie Antoinette, a fine keyboardist in addition to being queen of France (Merritt Janson); Wolfgang Mozart, who briefly roomed with Bologne in Paris (David Joseph), and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (Barclay), who famously wrote “Les liaisons dangereuses.” Laclos was librettist for at least one of Bologne’s operas and is a kind of narrator here.
In a clever theatrical device, the non-musical side of Bologne is portrayed by New York actor RJ Foster and the musical side by Elliott. The violinist is a fine player, but he was puzzlingly expressionless and he lacked some of the showmanship typically associated with a soloist.
The dialogue does what it is supposed to do: bring Bologne’s life into focus as well as the perilous times in which he lived. Much of the discussion focuses on music, but other subjects figure in as well, including the fraught revolutionary politics of the time and, of course, race.
Although Bologne achieved many successes in his life, he nonetheless faced a racially motivated physical attack and state persecution like the Police des Noirs, a 1777 law that blocked entry to France of all people of color and called on those living in France to submit to a kind of census.
To give Bologne such dramatized treatment makes sense because he was such an intriguing and successful historical figure. The downside to this approach is the music, though always present, was literally pushed to the background. In Skokie, the orchestra was at the rear of the stage, with Elliott back there as well because he needed to be within eyeshot of Glover.
In addition, the orchestra performed only full or partial movements from Bologne’s work (14 in all plus two morsels of Gluck and Mozart), which offered tantalizing tastes of the composer’s obviously prodigious musical talents but didn’t allow for any kind of deep appreciation or evaluation. Not helping matters was the uneven amplification, which messed with the musical balances and detracted from the sound of the fortepiano.
One of the most striking musical moments came when Elliott and concertmaster Kevin Case stepped toward the middle of the stage and engaged in a kind of dueling violins as part of Bologne’s spirited Symphonie concertante in G major, Op. 13.
Let’s hope that Music of the Baroque follows up this presentation with a concert of Bologne’s works. In the meantime, “The Chevalier” is slated for several more performances by other groups across the country this year, including the Cleveland Orchestra, and more are likely on the way. Bologne’s star is, at last, rising again.