The ‘Black Mozart’ Ensemble to celebrate 18th-century French-African composer CSO Spiritual Ensemble concert tribute to ‘Black Mozart’ features (white) Mozart’s Requiem

David Richardson

By shining a spotlight on an underappreciated French-African composer, violinist and athlete — a superstar of his age — CSO Spiritual Ensemble founder and producer Lee Pringle hopes young blacks in the Lowcountry will be inspired to make art of their own.

The Spiritual Ensemble will honor Joseph Bologne, also known as Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, with a performance of Mozart’s Requiem on Saturday.

The 8 p.m. concert at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church will showcase the choir and four African-American soloists, accompanied by organ.

Bologne was a contemporary of Mozart who lived 1745-99 and achieved enormous stature in the music world of the time as a composer, performer and conductor. He was admired by other established musicians of the period and was known as “the Black Mozart.”

Pringle said it’s difficult for the Spiritual Ensemble to draw attention to Bologne’s music since he wrote nothing for choir (though he did write four operas). But the group and its new conductor, 27-year-old David Richardson, have been hankering to perform Mozart’s great final work, the Requiem, and the classical music connections between the Salzburg prodigy and his black counterpart offered a good chance to introduce an audience to Saint-Georges.

“This is an opportunity for us to highlight the fact that there are classically trained African-American musicians out there who want to do this kind of work,” Pringle said. “We hope to encourage other African-American composers and arrangers to study the classics.”

The idea for this “Ode to Saint-Georges” was born in Canada, when Pringle attended a concert featuring the composer’s music.

“I was just blown away,” he said.

So he started digging a bit. He discovered that Bologne was an established figure in Parisian musical circles during the second half of the 18th century. He was a fine violinist and conducted several ensembles, including the largest orchestra of the time, the Concert de la Loge Olympique, which commissioned, then premiered (under Bologne’s baton) Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Paris Symphonies” (82-87).

Bologne was born in Guadeloupe, one of the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, the son of a slave from West Africa and a white French plantation owner who fled for France after he killed an opponent in a swordfight, according to the website AfriClassical.com and other sources.

The young Bologne was taught fencing by his father, eventually enrolling in a prestigious fencing academy as a teenager. He soon became one of the country’s most famous swordsmen, a skilled athlete and an expert horseman to boot. Later in his life, he would become involved in anti-slavery efforts, according to his biographies.

But he is best-known for his long and distinguished musical career, one during which he nevertheless encountered a degree of racist discrimination.

Richardson said Saint-Georges is a figure more recognized in music schools. “A lot of African-American musicologists study him, especially in historically black colleges and universities,” Richardson said.

Because of his prominence on the Parisian music scene, anybody who was anybody likely encountered him.

“Mozart would have sampled a lot of his writing,” he said. “All the things Mozart accomplished, he did, too. It’s really cool that we can tie them together in a very monumental and beloved choral work.”

The Mozart Requiem will be accompanied on organ by Christopher Nash of Columbia, Richardson said. This arrangement once was common when instrumentalists were too few to form a chamber orchestra, he said.

Soloists are soprano Taylor L. Johnson, mezzo-soprano Ginger Jones, tenor Johnnie Felder and bass Byron J. Barr.

A preconcert discussion is planned for 7 p.m. featuring Isaiah R. McGee, the newly appointed artistic director of the Spiritual Ensemble and its sister group, the CSO Gospel Choir.

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