Review: George Bridgetower – A Fable of 1807
Wednesday, November 7, 2007.
By Karl Williams
“We’ve left it so long. We’ve left it too long and I thought I want to tell stories about what makes a person like me exist. I want to reflect who I am with music and stories. We have to delve into our history; we must start telling our own stories." - Julian Joseph
The London Hackney Empire is playing host to one of history's lesser known virtuoso violinist. It's the story of George Polgreen Augustus Bridgetower and it's playing to a full, highly enthusiastic house.
Bridgetower was born to a Barbadian ex-slave father and a Polish mother around 1780 in Biala, Poland. When he arrived to play at the court of King George III, aged ten, he was already a celebrated virtuoso.
He played throughout Europe with the very best of his time and Beethoven wrote a sonata for him (later re-dedicated as the Kreutzer Sonata when the two fell out).
Bridgetower was a conspicuous musician and notable member of Britain’s early black community and multi-cultural London.
Yet despite all his achievements, he has largely been written out from the pages of history. This opera tells the story of a man who grew up courted by royalty and the establishment for his gift throughout his career as a brilliant musician, and one who was to die alone in a cottage in Peckham, South London.
There isn’t even a plaque to mark his final resting place!
The opera’s music has been written by Julian Joseph with the Libretto by the writer Mike Phillips. It starts with the chorus, which tells of Bridgetower's early begining as a violin prodigy who has arrived from across the seas.
Bridgetower was presented as the guest of the Prince of Wales and his consort Mrs Fitzherbert. The Prince decided he wants to keep the young Bridgetower played by Jamal Hope, in his household. However, he has to convince the boys’ father, played by Franz Hepburn, of his intentions.
We are then taken on a journey, which depicts the life Bridgetower lived as a very privileged individual at the time. His career and encounter with Mary Prince, played with passion by Abigail Kelly, as he’s lauded by audiences with his virtuoso performances in Britain and across Europe.
It was while he was on a continental tour of Europe that he met Beethoven, who was so impressed with the talented young man that he invited Bridgetower to perform with him. It’s during this time that Beethoven subsequently presented him with the ‘Bridgetower sonata’ he’s written specifically for him.
An unfolding sequence of events are brought to bare on the life of Bridgetower, as a man, played in his adult life by a very charismatic and engaging Cleveland Watkiss. The most relevant of these being the act, which announces the abolition of slave trade by British ships trading across the Atlantic. And Bridgetower is about to state his claim as a man!
Julian Joseph and his Big Band combined with a stellar cast, blessed this opera with an excellent composition of music. With its fusion of 18th century classical pieces, entwined with contemporary jazz. The setting, with its warmth and depth, bestowed light and dignity to a persona whom time had forgotten.
This performance is also part of the three-month autumn schedule, which started back in September. themed "Passage of Music: Marking the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade”. The festival combines a diverse mixture of film, opera, music, art, poetry, storytelling, plaque unveiling and all things cultural and creative.
If you have not been fortunate enough to see the Brigdetower Fable, I would seriously urge you in the current climate of commemoration, the sheer pleasure of entertainment and enlightenment to go and see this important rendition of Black British history which should never be forgotten.
BRIDGETOWER – A FABLE OF 1807
Music by Julian Joseph
Libretto by Mike Phillips
Photography by Keith Pattison
Touring to Warwick, Truro, Exeter, Malvern, Sheffield, Bexhill and Manchester throughout October and November.
For more information and tickets visit: -
Karl Williams is a London-based freelance journalist and The New Black Magazine's Motoring Correspondent.
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