|Julia Bullock (photo by Christian Steiner)
Let us begin at the end when Ms. Bullock brought the audience to their collective feet with her well chosen encore, "Somewhere" from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). The moving but non-histrionic delivery confirmed our impression that the work is truly an opera. There was not a hint of distasteful cross-over compromises.
The entire second half of the program put Ms. Bullock's interpretive gifts to use. Her hommage to Josephine Baker was charming, sassy and life-affirming. The two women both originated in St. Louis; one couldn't help thinking how times have changed in our lifetime. Ms. Baker had fled American prejudice to find fame and adulation in Paris whereas Ms. Bullock can enjoy fame and adulation right here in New York.
The songs were arranged by Jeremy Siskind. We especially enjoyed the sensual "Madiana" by Mairiotte Almaby, Vincent Scotto's gorgeous melodic line in "J'ai deux amours" and the funny/sad lyrics of Léo Lelièvre's "Si j'étais blanche". Mr. Siskind also arranged three further songs. Oscar Brown, Jr.'s "Brown Baby", Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Feels to be Free" and Harry T. Burleigh's "Little David". All were delivered with deep feeling and appropriate simplicity.
Three selections from Xavier Montsalvatge's Cinco canciones negras served to make us want to hear the other two! The menace present in "Chévere" was well limned as was the underlying pain in the tender lullaby "Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito", with the rumbling bass of Renate Rohlfing's piano conveying the troubled emotions of the mother.
We wish we had had the same pleasure from the first half of the program. Ms. Bullock was courageous in choosing some very difficult and grim material which she sang with deep conviction; it was just not our taste. To begin the evening, three songs by Luciano Berio were sung, interleaved with two very brief songs by Rossini from his post-opera writing period. There must have been a point to this alternation which we did not grasp; we only knew we preferred the Rossini by a long shot.
Young Concert Artists Composer-in-Residence David Hertzberg, inspired by Ms. Bullock, wrote a piece which was premiered last night entitled Ablutions of Oblivion. Ms. Bullock negotiated the wide leaps of register with ease and showed admirable word coloring in the plentiful descriptions of wind and leaves and bare places in Wallace Stevens' poetry. The text was supposed to "express dichotomous states of sensory oblivion". What??? Were it not for Ms. Bullock's fine delivery we would have longed for some sensory oblivion for ourselves.
We could not find anything to like about selections from Olivier Messiaen's works and would be happy never to hear them again. That being said, there was nothing disappointing about Ms. Bullock's impassioned performance and fine French. She clearly connected with every song on the program and we were only sorry that we lacked appreciation. She could sing the phone book and hold our attention. We kept thinking "Loved the singer, hated the song".
© meche kroop