A champion fencer, gifted athlete, high-ranking officer and violin virtuoso, Joseph Bologne was all those things in 18th-century France, but the classical world has only belatedly come to recognize him as well as a prolific and talented composer.
While he achieved considerable musical success during his lifetime, he nonetheless faced discrimination and was ultimately all but forgotten after his death in 1799, in no small part because he was mixed race. Bologne was born in the French Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe, the son of a white plantation owner and his wife’s African slave.
Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, along with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, will present the Midwest premiere Feb. 18-20 of The Chevalier, a concert theater work about the life and music of this fascinating and unfairly overlooked historical figure. (Bologne took the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges after graduating from France’s Royal Polytechnical Academy of Fencing and Horsemanship in 1766.) One performance will occur at 8 p.m. Feb. 20 at Symphony Center, with additional dates of 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18, Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington, and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19, North Shore Center for the Arts in Skokie.
“We’re absolutely ecstatic that the launchpad for the tour is in three different neighborhoods in Chicago during Black History Month. It is the perfect way to start us off, and I’m just so grateful for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra organization to be platforming it,” said Bill Barclay, writer-director of and an actor in The Chevalier. Now the artistic director of Concert Theatre Works, he was director of music in 2012-19 at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
Set in 1778, the 90-minute theatrical work uses four actors and a solo violinist, all in 18th-century French costumes, performing scenes in front of an onstage orchestra. The ensemble performs 16 excerpts from Bologne’s operas, string quartets and other music arranged for chamber orchestra by Barclay, along with a few selections by Gluck and Mozart. Two people portray the multiple faces of Bologne: New York actor R.J. Foster and Norfolk, Va., violinist Brendon Elliott. “We wanted to show the audience that Joseph Bologne was a complete one-off,” Barclay said. “There isn’t probably anyone alive or dead who could do what we need this person to do. So we like that it’s two people.”
The beginnings of The Chevalier date to 2018. After helping to take a show called Farinelli and the King to Broadway, bassist Chi-Chi Nwanoku and philanthropist Margaret Casely-Hayford came to Barclay with the idea for a production spotlighting Bologne. “I said, ‘Who’s that?’ ” Barclay said. The two outlined Bologne’s outsized resume, and he was stunned. “I immediately went and got his biography and read it, and was embarrassed,” Barclay said. “As a musicologist — [then] 37 years old — I had never heard of him.”
Barclay pitched the concept to the Globe, but the theater turned down the project. He then began looking elsewhere for possible collaborators because he was convinced the story needed to be told. He approached the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which administers the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass. It was preparing in 2019 to open the Tanglewood Learning Institute, which presents multi-disciplinary educational initiatives, and leaders there immediately saw the project’s potential. “They said, ‘We’ll take it,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘You’ll take what?’ They said, ‘We’ll take whatever you want to do. Here’s a budget.’ ”
Barclay, who holds a master of fine arts degree in playwriting, had originally hoped to collaborate with another playwright on the project, but the Boston Symphony’s tight deadline forced him to create the entire work himself. He wrote scenes that primarily explore the composer's musical side, including the lessons Bologne gave to Marie Antoinette (Merritt Janson) and his conversations with Mozart (David Joseph), who was briefly his roommate for six months in 1778. “I was blown away,” Elliott said. “I was honestly floored by the work Bill had done to put it together and all the historical aspects he had to dig for to be relevant to his [Bologne’s] life and be accurate.”
An early version of the work debuted in 2019 with a stage reading at Tanglewood. “People went mad for the story of Joseph Bologne,” Barclay said. He then continued to refine his original concept, consulting with dramaturgs, playwrights and others; Chicagoans will be the first to see the completed concert version.
“I started to realize that The Chevalier could really fill a gap in classical music — music’s sleeping giant of a diversity problem,” Barclay said. “Classical music has been white and male and 19th century for so long that I felt, and I’m not alone, that there was a bomb under the industry that would be set off at any time. And then [the killing of] George Floyd, and we had the Black Lives Matter summer and the whole universe, at least the America-centric universe, pivoted toward trying to address underlying problems within systemic racism.”
For Foster, taking on the role of Bologne has been a chance to learn about a historical figure he had only heard of in passing. “To really dig deep and to understand him as an artist, a fencer and as an abolitionist, it was illuminating,” he said. “It gave me a different perspective on a part of history that I knew something but not much about.”
He is looking forward to rehearsals for The Chevalier and really getting a sense of the structure of the concert theater work. “What I like about Bill is that he is very excited about it,” Foster said. “I can tell this is something he has put a lot of care and time into, and that’s kind of infectious.”
Elliott, who received his master’s degree from the Juilliard School in 2018, played in the New World Symphony, an internationally known pre-professional training ensemble in Miami Beach. The Virginia native was a three-time semifinalist in the National Sphinx Competition, overseen by the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which promotes the participation of people of color in classical music; he toured in 2015 and 2019 with the Sphinx Virtuosi.
Bologne was a first-rate violinist, so Elliott is enjoying the challenge of taking on the composer’s writing for the instrument. “There are some easygoing, easy-to-listen moments, but as a violinist, when he really wants to show off, he makes it very apparent: Now, it’s time to pay attention to what I’m doing. Because it’s hard, especially compared to other repertoire of the time.”
Barclay also has developed a three-hour version of The Chevalier that is a more traditional play, taking the story to the end of Bologne’s life in 1799. In it, the onstage orchestra will be costumed and perform the music from memory. It will be featured during a workshop later this year at the Baltimore Center Stage.
But for now, Barclay is concentrating on the concert version set for Chicago. Elliott and the four actors — Barclay plays Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses — will gather in New York for a week before coming to Chicago for rehearsals with conductor Jane Glover and Music of the Baroque. The Cleveland Orchestra is set to present The Chevalier in May, and it will be seen this summer at the Caramoor and Chautauqua festivals in New York State. Barclay is in conversations with a dozen other orchestras for performances in 2023.
“I think people will really enjoy it, and I think it is a really good time to have a work like this coming out,” Elliott said. “The story of Joseph Bologne is incredible, to say the least, and when we are trying to incorporate more works of minority composers or women composers, to have the true story of this man, who was so accomplished and so multi-faceted, the timing just couldn’t be more perfect.”
Note: Part of the proceeds from these performances will go to the Sphinx National Alliance for Audition Support, which works to boost the number of Black and Latino musicians auditioning for orchestral openings by providing mentorship, financial support and audition preparation. Every other orchestra that produces The Chevalier will be asked to provide similar support. “So that we slowly help along the pipeline of brilliant players to get into these permanent tenured chairs,” he said.