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Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was full of surprises. Perhaps most surprising, say Gerald Elias and Robert Baldwin, is the fact that the life of the 18th-century West Indian polymath hasn't been turned into a musical or movie.
Baldwin will turn over his baton to Elias who is a bit of a polymath himself for Sinfonia Salt Lake's season-closing concerts, pairing an opera by Saint-Georges with music by one of his better-known contemporaries: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Baldwin, who founded the professional chamber orchestra a year and a half ago, will join the viola section for the evening.
Elias explained that Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe, the son of a French plantation owner and an African slave. "But unlike most such stories, this one has a happy ending," Elias said. Young Joseph's father took him to Paris, where his education included fencing and horsemanship. "He was one of the greatest swordsmen in Europe," Elias said. "In his teens, he discovered music, and in a couple of years he was a virtuoso violinist. … Then he became a composer, and he was so good at what he did, and such a gentleman, that against all odds he rose in the ranks of Parisian society. For someone of mixed race, this was almost unheard of." Sadly, racism put the brakes on his progress, as the objections of three divas at the Paris Opera forestalled his appointment as music director there.
During the French Revolution, Saint-Georges commanded the first black battalion in Europe. "He had no resources, but he was gallant," Elias said. With the defeat of the aristocracy, though, Saint-Georges again fell out of favor and, Elias said, narrowly escaped the guillotine. He worked for abolitionists in France and England, then returned to the Caribbean, where he returned to music.
"He was just a remarkable person," Elias said. "At the end of his life impoverished, with his reputation down the drain he spent his retirement playing the violin and composing.
"If you made this stuff up, no one would believe you."
"He's not in the music history books; he's not really referred to," Baldwin said.
Saint-Georges sometimes was called "the black Mozart" hence the pairing on Monday's concert.
The name was "something of a pejorative," Elias said, "but you'll notice they didn't call him the black Cherubini or Salieri."
During his research into Saint-Georges' life, Elias came across the opera "L'Amante anonyme," which existed only in manuscript in other words, there were no orchestral parts. "I had to take this manuscript, which was terribly copied and full of mistakes, and generate legible parts," Elias said. "It was so much fun! It was almost like reading a mystery." (Elias, who retired from his post as associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony in 2011, knows a thing or two about mysteries. He's written a series of mystery novels revolving around a violinist-turned-detective.) Soprano Melissa Heath will sing two arias from the opera. She'll also sing Mozart's "Exsultate, jubilate," which Elias called "essentially a concerto for soprano."
Also on the program are Saint-Georges' Symphony in D and Mozart's Divertimento No. 17 in D. "Usually divertimenti from that era were throw-off music for parties, but Mozart this divertimento is equal to any of his great symphonies," Elias said. "It's like walking into a little art gallery and finding out you're in the Louvre."
Black or white
Sinfonia Salt Lake performs music of Mozart and Saint-Georges.
With • Conductor Gerald Elias and soprano Melissa Heath
When • Monday, May 15, 7:30 p.m.
Where • First United Methodist Church, 203 S. 200 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20; $10 for students and seniors; https://squareup.com/store/sinfonia-salt-lake