On Saturday, March 10th, After a delicious and jovial dinner at Thai Singa House as part of the LocalArtsLive Young Friends (LYF), fellow classical music enthusiasts and I took a short stroll to 38th and Chestnut to the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral: a recently rethought liturgical space originally built in 1898 as the Episcopal Church of the Saviour. We were there to hear a concert by the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra (BPCO). Founded in 2007 by music director Jeri Lynne Johnson, the BPCO is dedicated to spearheading a movement to increase and champion ethnic diversity in classical music. Upon arriving at the Cathedral, a beautiful Romanesque building, I was happily surprised by what was indeed the most diverse concert audience I have seen at a classical performance in Philadelphia. Not only was there a large representation from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but the age demographic was also unusual: there were a great deal of young persons and children! And perhaps their greatest triumph: they sold out the space; not an easy task at 25.00 per ticket (not that I am complaining: musicians do need to get paid after all).
First on the program was the Second Symphony in D major Op. 11 no. 2 by Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 - 1799). The concert billed as “The Black Mozart”, took its name from him; Boulogne was born in the Caribbean French colony of Guadeloupe to George Boulogne, a wealthy planter, and his African slave known as Nanoon. At the age of twelve, his father took him to France permanently for fears that his son and wife would be sold as slaves. Not very much is known about his early education, although research shows that he was trained in fencing, and in fact was dubbed later in life as one of the finest swordsmen in Europe; he quickly became the darling of French society and his amorous exploits were notorious. It has been suggested by violinist Gabriel Banat, leading researcher on the life of Boulogne, that Italian violinist Antonio Lolli was his violin teacher, and François-Joseph Gossec taught him composition. It appears he was as comfortable with the violin bow as he was with the sword, for in 1769 he joined Gossec’s newly-formed orchestra Concert des Amateurs , and soon after became its leader. He made his début as soloist with the Concert in 1772, with which he performed his first two violin concertos (Op. 2) evidently to critical acclaim. Soon after his musical career was launched and he quickly published many of his pieces including “two sets of string quartets (some of the first in Paris), a dozen violin concertos and at least 10 symphonies concertantes” (Banat). His musical accomplishments seem to have been such that a petition was made to make Boulogne the music director of the Paris Opéra in 1776. In an episode of blatant racism, which deplorably still take place to this day in our society, his ethnicity proved to be a liability; several leading ladies of the Opéra requested from Queen Marie Antoinette that she block the petition, so as to spare “degrading their honour and delicate conscience by having them submit to the orders of a mulatto” (Ibid.). Music, nonetheless, always has the ability to triumph above any social bias.
Upon hearing the opening bars of his second Symphony, one can understand how the nickname “the black Mozart” came about; the tools and idiom he utilizes are so similar to that of Mozart and Haydn (both also in the program) that it would be difficult not to momentarily confuse them if one was not told that the composer was in fact Joseph Boulogne. Upon closer examination, however, one can begin to distinguish them based on content. His symphony was very short (around 10 to 15 minutes in length) and resembled more a Serenade or Divertimento in its architecture rather than a Symphony (especially when compared to Haydn and Mozart); the themes in the first movement were not very memorable and indeed consisted mostly of short passages of “triple hammer strokes” joined by fast scales and arpeggios, with the occasional short fugato passage. Lacking in his Symphony was any extended or formal structural development of the themes after the Exposition, perhaps the reason the work was so short. It is worth noting that the second movement was in the parallel minor mode (d minor), which is somewhat unusual, but not unheard of in the symphonies of his contemporaries. The second movement was perhaps the most beautiful of the three owing to its sorrowful and tuneful melody. The composer removed the horns and woodwinds from this movement, treating the whole orchestra as a string quartet, using 2 violin parts, violas, and cellos (doubled by the basses); architecturally it was crafted as a theme in canon between the upper two and lower two voices one measure apart. The third movement began with an exuberant hunt-like theme achieved by having the woodwinds and horns rejoin the performing forces; it was pure pastoral joy, more reminiscent of the Mannheim and Viennese schools rather than anything Parisian. And, before you knew it, it was over! Though not a piece of music which some would consider among the highest expositions of the classical aesthetic, one can caution the listener that only knowing pieces by the “masters” can lead to a very narrow understanding of the historico-musico-continuum. There were many composers, of all backgrounds, all over Europe continuously writing new music in interrelated styles; sampling and borrowing material in the pre-copyright-obsessed 18th century was commonplace, and even constructive. Such musical exchange helped to foster style development and lead to aesthetic refinement. It is hard to quantify the amount music composed at any given time period, which highlights the fact that gathering music for an occasion in the late 1700s was not as simple as playing a record or connecting to an iPod: it required live musicians and constant new works to please the ever-hungry European audience, often composed at short notice. As modern music consumers we forget how difficult it once was for the average person to hear music on demand.
The next piece on he program was Joseph Haydn’s Symphony no. 44 known as the “Trauer” (or Mourning) symphony. And what more can be said about this work that has not already been said at great length? It is worth noting, however, that the BPCO which consisted that evening of about 27 musicians did a superb job at interpreting the work. Under the detailed, clear, and refreshingly enthusiastic conducting of Maestra Jeri Lynne Johnson, the orchestra (which is worth mentioning, had great intonation) achieved a gorgeous nuanced and warm sound, that became very rich and vibrant in the Basilica-like space. The acquaintance between Joseph Boulogne and Haydn is not very clear, but they definitely corresponded because it was the Chevalier de Saint-Georges who acted as the agent in commissioning the six symphonies composed by Haydn between 1785 and 1786 known today as the “Paris Symphonies”; these symphonies were performed under the baton of Mr. Boulogne by the aforementioned orchestra Concert des Amateurs.
The last piece on the program, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, is also connected to Mr. Boulogne and his environs as this genre is specifically a Parisian one. In the period between 1767 and 1830, 570 works by 210 composers (70 of which were French or nationalized Frenchmen such as Joseph Boulogne) used the title symphonie concertantes, and even if the composers were not French, these works labeled as such were most likely written while they were in Paris at some point in their career. This work by Mozart was written in 1779, at the age of 23, when he was on tour in Paris and Mannheim.
That evening, the BCPO featured violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, and violist Robin Fay Massie; what was most striking about these virtuose (technical mastery aside) was the unsullied bliss they exuded throughout the performance. The joy of music-making was very evident in their sound and stage presence. There were, unfortunately, some moments when the orchestra experienced balance problems: for the greater part of the first movement it was hard to hear the solo violinist, and almost impossible to hear the viola. They would have probably profited from a reduced orchestra or softer dynamics. It was clear, however, that the soloists were having a grand time playing together and this showed in their enthusiasm and sound. It was wonderful to see was the amount of eye contact these two fantastic players shared, and this constant dialogue between them obviously payed off as their performance was stellar.
This was the first time I experienced the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, and I hope it will not not be my last; this young orchestra can only get better as they coalesce and mature with each other, and I hope that we can all be witness to their growth and the spread of their gospel of ethnic diversity and excitingly nuanced performances.
Carlos Roberto Ramírez
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