Review: “The Chevalier” Staged Concert Shines a Light on an Unfairly Forgotten Black Genius 

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

Yet even many people who are deeply steeped in classical music are unfamiliar with the work of Bologne. This should not be surprising, as for more than two centuries after his death in 1799, his name had faded unfairly into obscurity. Bill Barclay — the writer and director of “The Chevalier,” a staged concert about Bologne performed on three Chicago-area stages on consecutive nights (February 18-20) — had never heard of him until 2018. 

The recently intensified focus on social justice and racial inequity in the United States since the murder of George Floyd has influenced the world of classical music and has brought overdue recognition to a number of long-overlooked Black composers. Among the beneficiaries is Bologne, better known as Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a knightly title bestowed on him by France’s King 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 Bologne might have been a candidate for most interesting man in the world in his day. In his teens, he first gained acclaim as a champion swordsman. As he rose through the musical ranks from performer to conductor to composer, Bologne crossed paths with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and became a music teacher to Marie Antoinette, queen to King Louis XVI, in the years just prior to the French Revolution.  

His relationships (real or embellished) with those enduring but ill-fated historical figures provide the dramatic context of “The Chevalier.” The theatrics are paired to samplings of Bologne’s music performed by Chicago’s Music of the Baroque orchestra under the baton of Music Director Dame Jane Glover, with soloist Brendon Elliott taking a star turn channeling Bologne’s violin virtuosity. 

The play was performed Sunday at Symphony Center after being presented on Friday at the Kehrein Center for the Arts in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood and on Saturday at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. The action takes place in 1778 at Bologne’s house that he shared with Mozart for three months — a period when the Austrian prodigy was mourning the death of his mother — and at the palace of Versailles. 

The play is an earnest and often dramatically compelling vignette of Bologne’s life. He is performed by R

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

J Foster in his improbable rise to greatness and celebrity, his risk-taking stand to abolish slavery in the French colonies, and his frustrations when his ambitions are thwarted by racism (his candidacy to direct the Paris Opera is thwarted by three divas who threaten to quit rather than take instruction from a “mulatto”). 

David Joseph plays Mozart, who seems destined to forever be portrayed as a hyperactive, flippant force of nature. Marie Antoinette — portrayed throughout history as a frivolous elitist snob, her execution during the Revolution’s Reign of Terror cheered by the French masses — gets a much more sympathetic treatment in “The Chevalier.” Merritt Janson plays her as a talented amateur musician who is sympathetic to Bologne’s abolitionist fervor and his ambitions to lead the Paris Opera but is powerless to help him. 

The only other character is Captain Pierre Cholderlos de Laclos, performed by playwright Barclay as a bombastic egoist who shares the popular opinion that he is the premier author of his day (he wrote Les Liaisons dangereuses, on which the 1988 hit film Dangerous Liaisons was based). Laclos was also the librettist for Bologne’s first opera. 

Though buoyed by good intentions, the success of “The Chevalier” as a drama is somewhat constricted by the staged concert format. The actors take up the front of the stage, their only scenery a simple table. The characters are voiced in unaccented English, which can make it hard to connect them with the historical figures they portray. 

Soloist Brendon Elliott’s channeling of Joseph Bologne’s violin virtuousity was a highlight of The Chevalier. Photo by Elliot Mandel.

There are also some awkward shifts during the music lesson scenes, which have Elliott playing Bologne’s parts on the violin and Yasuko Oura subbing for Janson as Marie Antoinette on the pianoforte. Yet the talent of these musicians was the highlight of the evening. Elliott took on the rapid-fire challenging technique in solos Bologne wrote for himself and earned the loudest round of applause during the closing bows. 

An ensemble of 16 players from the Music of the Baroque orchestra ably provided the evening’s soundtrack with excerpts of 13 compositions by Bologne, as well as a piece by Christoph Willibald Gluck portrayed as a favorite of Antoinette’s and two pieces by Mozart. 

While “The Chevalier” does not quite mesh perfectly as a quasi-play, quasi-concert, it deserves a tip of the tri-cornered hat for bringing a long-neglected genius to life and distinguishing him from the back-handed compliment often applied to him as the “black Mozart.” 

Music of the Baroque quickly segues to a different take on Black artists with “McGill Plays Mozart.” These concerts feature Chicago native Anthony McGill, the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic. One of the few Black principals in any of our nation’s orchestras, McGill is set to perform what some consider to be the most beautiful piece of music ever written, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A-Major, K.622. Tickets for the performance on Sunday (February 27) at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts are sold out; tickets for the performance on Monday (February 28) at Chicago’s Harris Theater are priced at $25-$95 and can be purchased here. 

 

 

Bob Benenson
Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.

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