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Ackland Art Museum brings music to the galleries through interactive event

The Ackland Art Museum on Sept. 15, 2022.

For a brief, enchanted moment on Sunday, visitors to the Ackland Art Museum were transported into the visual and auditory world of a French noble of the late 18th century.

At "Music in the Galleries," members of the UNC Baroque Ensemble performed for about half an hour, followed by a tour of the exhibition “Reform to Restoration: French Drawings from Louis XVI to Louis XVIII (1770-1830)”.

Four experienced members of the Baroque Ensemble and their director, Brent Wissick, performed for an audience of about 45 people. They played movements from symphonies by Joseph Haydn and Joseph Bologne and a sonata by Andreas Lidl.

Dana Cowen, the Ackland’s Sheldon Peck Curator for European and American Art before 1950, helped pick the 90 drawings from the private Horvitz Collection of French art for "Reform to Restoration." The Ackland has worked on two previous exhibitions with the Horvitz Collection.

“What drew me to doing this exhibition here was just the sheer quality of these drawings, the talent and creativity of French artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the technical skills that they're using to make these drawings for such a variety of media,” Cowen said.

If you closed your eyes during the performance, you could almost imagine that you indeed were in a Parisian salon in 1780. You heard the same notes, and felt the same anxiety waiting for a break in the music if you needed to cough. The drawings showed the same scenes, from the murder of Amnon to episodes in Ovid’s "Metamorphoses" to the celebration of the anniversary of the French Revolution.

Cowen chose to organize the pieces into thematic categories rather than arrange them chronologically or by style. A drawing of a woman sitting in the dark in classical robes by François-André Vincent seems initially quite distant from today's audiences until they realize that the drawing is in the section on agony, and the woman is mourning her father’s death — just as people do now.

Thankfully, though, attendees did not have to experience everything a French noble of that tumultuous era would have gone through, including potential exile and beheading during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The drawings and symphonies themselves reflect that chaotic time.

Haydn remained popular in Paris despite France’s political rivalry with his native Austria, but many of the drawings capture contemporary scenes including Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and a portrait of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who gave his name to the execution device that beheaded thousands, including Louis XVI. 

Bologne, who composed one of the movements performed by the Baroque Ensemble, was the son of a plantation owner and a woman he enslaved in the Caribbean.

Wissick told attendees at the Ackland that, while Bologne was beloved by many of the orchestral musicians he conducted, the musicians at the Paris Opera would not accept him because of his race. Despite his sympathies with the revolution, Bologne was put in prison during the Reign of Terror due to his close connection to Marie Antoinette and other royals.

“It would be easy to say that the music should speak for itself and all you do is perform what you see on the page and then you stop there, but I'm much more interested in looking at the bigger context of music and art in earlier times, so I admire the technical excellence of his music, but I can never forget the complexity of his situation,” Wissick said.

The full Baroque Ensemble, with about 20 members, will perform an orchestral version of Bologne’s composition at its public concert in December.

“I adore baroque music and I’m impressed that the Ackland has the greatest collection of 18th century French drawings on exhibition,” Smith Freeman, a retired banker and UNC alumnus who attended “Music in the Galleries,” said.

"Reform to Restoration" can be seen at the Ackland through Oct. 8, following which it will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.


@dthlifestyle |

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