"Black Mozart” Boulogne made music with Marie Antoinette
When conductor Boris Brott plans a program—unless it’s an all-Bach concert or The Messiah—he likes to add the element of surprise.
“I like to put together programs that I think will entertain the audience, as well as musically edify,” says Brott, director of the McGill Chamber Orchestra. “I want the audience to have a sense of passion and joy of making music and to have the sense of discovery.”
For the May 14 concert, Brott has included music by a remarkable figure of the 18th century, Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de St. George, who is not as well known as he should be, given the body of his work and the adventurous life
Born in Guadalupe to a Senegalese slave and a French plantation owner, Boulogne grew up in France and attended a private academy.
In Paris, where he spent his adult life, he earned a reputation as a master fencer and equestrian. During the French revolution he led an army of black volunteers.
He was a celebrity in his time, admired as a composer, conductor and violin virtuoso. His works include violin concertos, harpsichord sonatas, symphonies, string quartets, ballet and opera.
Like Mozart, he knew Marie Antoinette and made music with her. He was almost selected to direct the Royal Opera, but was thwarted by three divas who petitioned the queen, saying they would refuse to take orders from him.
“Joseph Boulogne’s style is similar to that of Mozart, but with his own stamp on the music,” Brott explained. “He obviously had a very well developed sense of harmony and invention and though maybe not quite as inspired as Mozart, he obviously had that facility, more than some of the other individuals, like Salieri and Vanhal, who lived at that time.
“I am very taken with his music, it’s great stuff, but not often played and very few know about it. I can thank my father (Alexander Brott, founder of the McGill Chamber Orchestra). He is the one who introduced me to it.”
He recalled that Alexander Brott had been very interested in musical discovery, often commissioning works by young Canadian composers for the orchestra.
The new season will be filled with “unusual things” characteristic of what the orchestra offers, Brott said.
“We are starting off with a ballet—Eddy Toussaint—with dancers on the stage, including a new work by Montreal composer Vania Angelova.”
Later concerts will feature André Gagnon’s music, performances of The Messiah, all four Bach orchestral suites in co-production with the Montreal Bach Festival, and an arrangement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet.
A production of Mozart’s Magic Flute will be presented with Opera McGill.
Future concerts include young performers Brott refers to as “my discoveries,” playing a Mozart piano concert and music for violin from the film The Red Violin.
“We do things that are traditional and also try to establish new traditions,” Brott says. “I think the musicians we work with are very special—they bring the energy, enthusiasm and excellence that is really what the orchestra is about.”