Q&A: James Conlon, Marlon Daniel, & Maria Todaro on Their Shared Devotion to the Life and Works of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

By Afton Wooten
Photo: Bob-Estremera, Bonnie Perkinson, & Tania Baricklo

The name and reputation of the revolutionary Classical composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges were once nearly forgotten. Through the work of Los Angeles Opera Music Director James Conlon, Marlon Daniel founder of the Saint-Georges International Music Festival, and stage director Maria Todaro, Bologne is returning to the spotlight.

Below these individuals discuss their thoughts on the composer and why they chose to dedicate major parts of their careers to honoring Bologne.

OperaWire: Personally, why is this composer important to you?

Marlon Daniel: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, for many diverse classical musicians and I is a symbol that we are relevant and that people of color have a long rich history in this genre of music. As in so much Western music, we find a pattern of appropriation, neglect, and diminished value when people of color do the same as their white counterparts. For aspiring artists and particularly youth of color, representation is important. History books often omit that people of color have been a part of and made significant contributions to music throughout time. In the Classical era, the major exponent was Joseph Bologne.

What I saw as a young musician growing up in Chicago was a sea of white, mainly male, composers, was that I was an outsider trying to come in to perform. When I discovered Bologne and other composers of color, however, that changed my view. I am not the outlier; this genre is also my music. People of color have a long history and a place in classical music. And when I am asked the frequent question: “Why are you playing white folk’s music?” I can reply with the knowledge and fact that people of color have also been a part of this music. Classical music is for everyone, and it is time to relinquish these antiquated theories. Joseph Bologne proves it. He inspired all the great composers of his day, including François-Joseph Gossec, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart showing Bologne deserves his place in the pantheon of great classical composers.

James Conlon: Joseph Bologne Chevalier de St George(s) is both a composer of note and an outstanding personality of his time. I think it is important that classical music lovers be aware of his history and his music. I am particularly gratified that we were able to film “L’Amant Anonyme” with the Young Artists of the LA Opera together with our orchestra during the early days of the Covid epidemic.

The time for universal recognition of his music is long overdue. Although he was recognized and celebrated during his lifetime, his music has been largely neglected for the past two centuries. In my judgment, having familiarized myself with enough of it to conclude that his music’s exclusion from the repertory is only explicable in terms of racism and prejudice.

Maria Todaro: He has become to me a model to abide by, an example of resilience and a quest for excellence in all, using this excellence as a weapon to fight against injustice and idiocy. He is also an important reminder that it is so easy to lose priceless inspiration from life if we are not aware of unfairness. History almost eradicated Bologne. What a loss it would have been. And how many more have we lost?

OW: How do you describe Bologne’s compositions?

JC: Classically classical. It accords completely with the standards and practices of his day. We should not overlook that he apparently knew Mozart personally (and his influence on his younger colleague, especially providing a model for the form of the Sinfonia Concertante, is undeniable).

MD: Joseph Bologne’s music is a representation of the 18th-century classical galant style, derived from Baroque traditions, with a clear distinction between the tonic and dominant, arpeggiated accompaniment, use of typical Classical and Baroque forms (sonata form, etc.) but what makes Bologne’s work unique is his virtuosic use of the violin.

Some Baroque violin composers were virtuosic in certain genres like violin sonatas or concertos. Still, we really do not find this in the Classical era or late 18th century outside of Bologne. It’s also the degree and variety of Bologne’s virtuosity that makes him stand out; it wouldn’t be until Paganini and other romantic composers that we hear a violinist of such virtuosity and so consistently across genres. We can find this flamboyant use of technique in his quartets, violin concertos and sinfonia concertante.

The latter, in fact, was a genre that, if not the creator, he was a major exponent of this form. It is important to recognize that France was a mecca for the arts and music at this time in history, and at the musical center stands Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. This is why Mozart and Haydn wanted to be there, further their careers, and have their works performed in Paris, the City of Light. Without Joseph Bologne, France would have little recognition or proof as a major contributor to the Classical Period of music and the “classical” style, something that the Austro-Hungarian Empire has taken most credit for centuries.

OW: What do you want people to know about this composer?

MT: EVERYTHING! Because there is not an area he invested himself in that wasn’t remarkable. But I probably would like people to realize how massively unfair life could have been to him, not being allowed to fully love or build a family. Yet, how he responded to all this injustice and became a remarkable example and what we could call a “success” is probably what had the most impact on me.

MD: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was a trailblazer, not only as a musician but also as a historical figure, far-reaching globally. The second US President—John Adams—hailed him as “the most accomplished man in Europe.” He was an exceptional athlete and the greatest fencer of his day, a colonel in the French Revolution leading Légion Franche de Cavalerie des Américains, which was comprised of men of color; it soon became known as the Légion Saint-Georges. He was an abolitionist who fought for those oppressed under slavery and France’s Code Noir.

JC: I want people to know that it is very good music, worthy of hearing and remembering. For violinists, it is a treasure chest of concerti.

OW: How do you see Bologne’s work being done in the coming seasons?

MT: We only found one of his six operas, so I hope that “The Anonymous Lover” will be expanded. I have two versions and hope to have the opportunity to present a few more. I hope to finalize the writing of the opera about Bologne himself with Damien Geter and Harrison David Rivers and see his orchestral work included in many programs. But I secretly hope we will find new pieces of his.

MD: I see many performances of Bologne’s music on the horizon; however, I hope that this is not a fad brought on by the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic. I am an advocate of more music organizations programming his works to secure his place in the standard repertoire. My dream is that more conservatories, music schools and universities, and international competitions adopt Bologne’s music in their violin auditions and curriculums, teaching and showcasing his contributions to music, not as a passing footnote, but as a significant, influential figure (and not just in music). However, I am concerned that many will use this heightened current awareness of Joseph Bologne to throw their hero’s cape to advance current organization “diversity quotas” or receive notoriety and funds, obfuscating their previous practices and not really embracing and encouraging true diversity and representation in the arts. And then we have the situation where other genuinely pioneering organizations and artists have not and still have not been given this opportunity.

OW: Maria, we talked about your new production of “The Anonymous Lover” and the scenes you wrote to acknowledge Bologne. Could you dig into the characters you added and why?

MT: The opera is an opportunity to point to Bologne himself while trying to respect as much as possible the integrity of the play.

I added Joseph Bologne, who ended up playing Valcour. This allowed a few sharing with the audience about the life of the Chevalier from “his own mouth,” allowing us to become more familiar with him. We meet Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint Georges, literally.

Madame de Montesson was one of Bologne’s patrons whose home “The Anonymous Lover” was created. She is said to have played the role of Dorothee (hence a spoken role in the original opera, it is indeed a historically accurate element). Painting this character and stepping into Dorothee has given me the opportunity to not only also share a few more details about the life of Bologne but to invite our modern audience to “travel in time” and sit in the salon of Madame de Montesson to experience a bit more “interactively” what it was in the 18th-century.

Including Marie-Josephine de Montalembert (who was the forbidden love of his life and who was the mother of his son) creates an immediate parallel between the “The Anonymous Lover” and the Chevalier. Marie-Josephine becomes Leontine and the play in the play, ends up fully blending to the point where the “parallel characters are now one, sharing the same struggles, torments, and desires.”

OW: Marlon, can you walk us through how you conceived the Saint-Georges International Music Festival?

MD: I have been involved with the music of Joseph Bologne and other composers of color for many years before I started co-conceiving the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges 2011. After some research on what would be the best way to honor Bologne, I took this Festival as an opportunity to test the validity and need for a classical music festival in Guadeloupe, the composer’s birthplace and a region that has historically had racial tension with mainland France. This “prelude” festival in 2011 was incredibly well received; the public there was blown away and came in droves; we had over-full audiences at every concert. I found not only was there a need but also a hunger in people for classical music and to celebrate the legacy of Bologne.

We spoke with the locals, and of course, one of their rapidly developing industries is tourism, so we wanted to make this Festival a destination for people coming to Guadeloupe while also sharing one of the cultural icons and rich history of the island. Not only were we bringing some of the finest classical artists from around the world to Guadeloupe, but we also worked with local community organizations to improve education, outreach, and engagement on the island. Our goal was always to learn and share the rich culture of Guadeloupe through the lens of one of its greatest historical figures, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

OW: What’s on the program this year?

MD: The pandemic honestly has created many obstacles, especially for live events. In November 2023, we are expected to present the next edition of the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges in Guadeloupe. Then we also want to start bringing that Festival excellence and cultural richness to cities in mainland France, that include Bordeaux, Nantes, Lille, and Paris, port cities closely associated with the French slave trade. In addition to works of the standard repertoire, including obviously works by Joseph Bologne with various soloists and chamber ensembles, we will also have some new works by composers of diversity. We are featuring a recital series “Touches de Femme,” internationally renowned female pianists in a special recital series. One of the highlights is a new concert version of Bologne’s only surviving opera, “L’amant anoynome” which was slated to be performed before the pandemic in 2019. This is adapted from the critical edition I helped create and was performed at the Colour of Music Festival in 2016.

OW: What is your vision for the future of the Saint-Georges International Music Festival?

MD: As one of the most prestigious music festivals in the Caribbean, the Saint-Georges International Music Festival stands out as a unique emblem of diversity in the classical music world. We need the continued support and opportunity to keep the legacy of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, alive by presenting his music alongside the standard repertoire performed by the most outstanding and diverse artists in the world and Guadeloupe, the Cultural Capital of the Caribbean.

OW: James, where did you start your research on Joseph Bologne?

JC: I was familiar with his name, which came to my attention when I lived in Paris. I knew it also, of course, as the composer /conductor who was responsible for commissioning Joseph Haydn to composers the so-called “Paris Symphonies.” When I learned of his only extant opera (one of six written), it piqued my interest. The experience of having conducted “L’Amant Anonym” as well as a violin concerto has confirmed the quality of his music to me.

OW: James, please tell us about your passion and dedication to silenced composers.

JC: History demonstrates that when the political or social climate is unfavorable (or in extreme cases, like the suppression and genocide under the Nazi Regime), much music can be lost, either physically or in terms of public recognition. Many composers were sidelined (or worse) during their lifetimes and consequently missed their chance to establish a legacy. This goes for our own country (where principally composers of color have been ignored )as well as the atrocities in the course of history in Western Europe and Russia.



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