The Chevalier

The Chevalier
The life and music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Concert Threatre Works

St Martin-in-the-Fields. 21 March 2023

The composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) has been having a well-deserved resurgence in recent years with several performances of his music, generally from period instrument orchestras. This “unique piece of concert theatre” from Bill Barclay’s Concert Theatre Works at St Martin-in-the-Fields contrasted episodes from Bologne’s eventful life with extracts from his music from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Matthew Kofi Waldren, with Braimah Kanneh-Mason as the violin soloist. The very sparse programme note was nothing more than an advertising flyer (view here) and gave precious little information. It did bill it as a “concert version”, although it looked pretty well staged to me. I gather it was a reduced version of a show that was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, premiered and toured in the USA and was first performed in the UK at the Snape Maltings on 19 March.

Joseph Bologne was an 18th-century composer, conductor, violinist, a friend of Mozart and Marie Antoinette, a military success, and an active campaigner for the abolition of slavery. He was one of the first black colonels in the French army, eventually leading Europe’s first all-black regiment. He was born in the French colony of Guadeloupe as the illegitimate son of a wealthy plantation owner and his wife’s 16-year-old Senegalese slave, Nanon. His father retained responsibility for him, taking him and his mother to France where he was educated as a gendarme while having music lessons from Gossec and Leclair. He was famed as a fencer and, as such, was knighted by Louis XV as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He commissioned and gave the first performances of Haydn’s Paris Symphonies.

This play focuses on the year 1778, when Bologne was living in the Duc d’Orléans’ Paris mansion where, for a few weeks, Mozart also stayed. He also played and gave lessons to Marie-Antoinette. These two characters form the basis of much of the theatrical aspect of the show, with Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, librettist of Bologne’s first opera (and future author of Les Liaisons dangereuses) acting as a commentator. Four American actors played the costumed roles of Joseph Bologne (Chukwudi Iwuji), Marie Antoinette (Merritt Janson), Mozart (David Joseph), and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (Bill Barclay).

Violinist Braimah Kanneh-Mason took the costumed performing role of Bologne which he combined with occasional acting. His playing was the highlight of the evening. Playing from memory, it must have been a tough task just learning all the notes. He was accompanied by Sophia Rahman playing the (amplified) fortepiano during a busy evening for her, and was joined by LPO violinist Kate Oswin for the concluding extract from Bologne’s Symphony Concertante in G. The musical inserts were all extracts from Bologne’s music, with an emphasis on the violin concertos. They demonstrate a talented musical mind, in a late classical genre.

Concert Theatre provides the four actors, a solo violinist, costumes and props leaving the concert promoter to provide the orchestra and conductor together with staging furniture. It was a shame that a period instrument orchestra wasn’t used – the very modern instrument LPO (in 4,4,3,3,2 formation plus double horns and oboes), despite fine playing, produced a very different sound world to that of Bologne’s time. The only concession to period performance was using a fortepiano, but then they amplified it.

Braimah Kanneh-Mason
Photo by Mark Allan, from the Snape Maltings performance.

All the actors were also miked-up and were very loud from where I was sitting. I wasn’t too convinced by the theatrical aspects of the evening. I am not an expert on the life of Bologna, but several aspects of the play do not appear to be mentioned in the many online details of his life, not least the extensive discussions with Marie Antoinette about compositional techniques and the balance between the soloist and the accompanist. Quite a bit of the also text seemed to be aimed a promoting a particular view on a number of current issues that made a rather clunky fit with the story of Bologna, however noble they might have been. To be honest, I would have preferred a concert of Bologna’s music from a period orchestra.