International, charismatic concert violinist and Chicago native Rachel Barton Pine was just in her teens when she was first introduced to the works of Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. But, before the first note of the 18th century composer’s music hit her ears, his visage caught her eye.
In the hunt for repertoire for an album project, she’d gone to the Chicago Center for Black Music Research.
Walking into the facility for the first time as a teenager, “I spotted, hanging on the wall, a replica of the famous portrait of Bologne,” she says. “A Black guy in a white Mozart wig with a violin and a sword. And I was, like, ‘Whoa! Awesome album cover!’”
She read all about Bologne and his significance – the mixed-race son of a wealthy French planter and an enslaved woman in the Caribbean, who was taken to France for his education. He became a virtuoso violinist, conductor, classical composer, and champion fencer. She learned about the quality of his music, too, and got hold of eight of his violin concertos, all published in the late 1700s.
“His music had not been printed again in modern times. Not in the 1800s or in the 1900s,” where she sat, late 20th century, playing through those concertos.
“Every single one is good. … It’s all very beautiful, very catchy, very high quality compositionally. But for me, personally, this A major jumped out at me as the one I liked best.”
Bologne’s Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 5, in A Major, “still my best friend” even decades later, she says, is the one she’ll be performing as the guest artist at the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra’s Oct. 9 Bravo 1: Exquisite Opener at the Thalia Mara Hall / 7:30 pm / Jackson, MS / Tickets $29 & up. Buy tickets online at msotickets.com.
The concert ushers in MSO’s most diverse season to date.
The CD Pine released in 1997, “Violin Concertos by Black Composers from the 18th and 19th Centuries,” was a life-changing record for her. She’d recorded it because she loved the music. “I wasn’t even thinking about issues of social justice and representation or any of those bigger issues. I was just, like, these are awesome pieces!” And because they’d either been rarely recorded or not at all, “I felt like they deserved to be out there in the world, based on their quality.”
When her album came out, students, parents, and teachers wanted more – easier pieces that kids could learn from some of these composers, and similar repertoire that, in those pre-Internet days, didn’t exist in easily accessible ways. That sparked the Music by Black Composers project – a commitment of her not-for-profit Rachel Barton Pine Foundation.
A pedagogical series, a Black composers coloring book for kids, online directories of historic Black composers and of about 300 living composers and more are part of this initiative. A video about the project also features acclaimed composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery, whose “Starburst” is also part of the Bravo 1 program.
Now, symphony orchestras are much more intentional about diversity and inclusion in their season lineups, a move Pine thinks is long overdue. “It’s kind of a sea change, but of course the seeds have been percolating for many decades.
“All the other social reasons are very important about representation and inclusion and all of that, but … just from a purely musical perspective, we are all missing out if we don’t have this music in our lives.
“If a fuller representation of humanity isn’t having their voices be part of the conversation, then music doesn’t mean as much. I think it’s absolutely wonderful that a much larger number of people are finally hearing all of these works, which honestly should’ve and would’ve been part of the so-called canon all along if there hadn’t been active discrimination.”