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Review: The Composer Joseph Boulogne, a Polymath for All Seasons

Review: The Composer Joseph Boulogne, a Polymath for All Seasons


Now, the composer Joseph Boulogne could be hailed as a Renaissance man: artist, athlete, mental, soldier. Born in Guadeloupe in 1745, the son of a white French plantation proprietor and an enslaved mom of Senegalese origin, Boulogne grew to become a virtuoso violinist, prodigious composer, champion fencer, the overall of Europe’s first Black regiment and an avid abolitionist.

But Boulogne, a.okay.a. the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (and whose final title is usually spelled “Bologne”), was a biracial man in a time and place that held little house for him, which implies his exceptional life has largely been erased from the historic narrative, although that’s starting to alter.

“The Chevalier,” a trim hybrid of theater and music, seeks to revive his repute. The present was written and directed by Bill Barclay, the inventive director of Music Before 1800. (Barclay additionally performs Choderlos de Laclos, a Boulogne collaborator and creator of the novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”) A single efficiency on the eye-poppingly opulent United Palace theater in Washington Heights on Sunday served as its New York City premiere; will probably be accessible to stream subsequent month.

“The Chevalier” begins relatively unpromisingly. Barclay takes as his level of imaginative departure the few weeks that Boulogne and Mozart have been housemates in Paris. Mozart, 11 years youthful, grills Boulogne about his life story, and he responds with lengthy, expository solutions that hit on main biographical factors — extra faculty lecture than beguiling drama.

Soon, although, “The Chevalier” finds a witty, incisive groove. (It’s way more pleasing than the soapy, forgettable biopic “Chevalier,” from 2022.) Barclay’s setup additionally dismantles the demeaning concept that Boulogne was “the Black Mozart” — at greatest, an also-ran within the white classical pantheon. Instead, Barclay frames him as a mentor to Mozart, guiding him by the politics of musical Paris.

The narrative components of “The Chevalier,” interspersed with musical excerpts, illuminate and contextualize Boulogne’s music in a means {that a} listener’s likelihood encounter, on a playlist or in a stay live performance, won’t. In one scene, Boulogne and the French queen Marie Antoinette — whom Boulogne tutored in music — talk about how in a chunk for violin and piano, he provides each devices equal weight, making them friends: the philosophy of a fervent abolitionist, summed up in a sonata.

Barclay additionally attracts nuanced, if hard-to-miss, hyperlinks between 18th-century France and Twenty first-century America, together with references to racist policing and violence that Boulogne skilled.

The actor R.J. Foster shares the position of Boulogne with the violinist Brendon Elliott; Foster takes the spoken position, whereas Elliott performs his instrument because the Chevalier. In a couple of wry asides, Foster telegraphs the inconceivable place Boulogne occupied in French society, as a Black abolitionist working within the service of the royal court docket — which was funded partly by the enslavement of individuals within the Caribbean. (Marie Antoinette doesn’t fairly perceive his scenario and thinks he would make an excellent music director of the Paris Opera; Boulogne doesn’t get the job, after noblemen and musicians reject being led by “a mulatto.”)

Elliott lends his silvery tone, very good phrasing and a commanding approach to the Chevalier’s solos. I look ahead to seeing him carry out in additional conventional live performance settings.

Merritt Janson brings a sure pathos to the position of Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution. David Joseph’s Mozart is a petulant newcomer, thirsting for public adoration.

The Harlem Chamber Players provide glowing, taut performances. The pianist Jas Ogiste performs tender, craving solos for Marie Antoinette’s character; the violinist Ashley Horne gives deep tone and wealthy colour to his duet with Elliott in an excerpt from Boulogne’s Symphony Concertante in G main.

At a talkback after the efficiency, Elliott accurately described Boulogne’s technically formidable violin works as “proto-Paganini,” whereas Barclay provided a spirited protection of Boulogne’s music, which is usually, and unfairly, in comparison with that of Haydn and Mozart. “Mozart wasn’t main a revolution,” Barclay noticed: “The man was busy.”

“The Chevalier”

Performed Sunday on the United Palace, Manhattan; accessible to stream, Feb. 4-18 at www.mb1800.org.

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