We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, April 21, 2018


Julia Bullock and John Arida onstage at Weill Recital Hall

There is an air of devoutness about soprano Julia Bullock!  There is such devotion to her art and to whatever she chooses to put on her program that she inspires devotion in her audience. Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall was not nearly large enough to hold the legions of her fans; but her artistry is so intimate that the hall is a perfect fit! Perhaps she should have been given a second night to accommodate everyone that clamored to hear her. We feel a sense of privilege to have been there.

We have been writing about Ms. Bullock since we began this blog. However, she first came to our attention when Lachlan Glen presented his year-long Schubertiade, employing the services of his fellow students at Juilliard. Sadly, the website for which we wrote is no longer extant and we cannot access those reviews.

But for the past 6 years, Ms. Bullock has had our admiration in a number of operatic roles (Cendrillon and Vixen Sharp-Ears are best remembered), at New York Festival of Song, in solo recitals, in Juilliard liederabende, at a Juilliard Vocal Arts Honor Recital, at a Young Concert Artists recital, and a Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert. Did we miss anything? Oh yes, a master class with Eric Owens.

Let us take a closer look at the reasons for our consistent admiration. Ms. Bullock is blessed with a gorgeous instrument which has darkened and expanded with time. We heard some impressive tone at the lower end of the register in the last set of songs on the program.

But there is so much more to her artistry. She does occasionally repeat a song from one recital to the next but mostly she tackles new material. She translates the songs herself and there is never any doubt that she is immersed in the text.  We have no doubt that she is visualizing what is in the text and we see it through her eyes.

Her programming is highly personal and a bit idiosyncratic. We go where she leads and take pleasure in the novelty. She began the program with four lovely Schubert songs which reminded us of our first exposure to her artistry in a church on the Upper East Side, at the Schubertiade we mentioned above.

Ms. Bullock clearly expresses her feminism and anti-racism. The opening song "Suleika I" was written not by Goethe, as she pointed out, but by his lover Marianne von Willemer. Accompanied by the superb collaborative pianist John Arida, we could feel the breeze created by rippling piano figures. The last verse was repeated twice, deeply felt, and differentially colored each time.

Friedrich Rückert's charming text for "Lachen und Weinen" provided opportunities for major-minor shifts. The confused adolescent mood was sustained through the piano postlude. Goethe's text for "Wandrers Nachtlied II" held us in a peaceful place.

The strophic "Seligkeit" was written by Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty, a man of the cloth who abdicated for a life of poetry. In this song we hear a tribute to earthly bliss.

Dear readers, were you waiting for me to complain about Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs?  You will be surprised to learn that we actually enjoyed them. Props to any singer who can show us what there is to appreciate about a  previously disparaged work of art. It's something like sitting down with a person you thought little of and learning that they have a lot to offer!

So what helped us turn that particular corner?  We suppose it was that Ms. Bullock's aforementioned devoutness gave us insight into people who choose a life of devoutness and monasticism. Her intense involvement with the songs was matched with superlative English diction such that we understood every word. In "Saint Ita's Vision" we saw in our mind's eye the woman clasping the baby Jesus to her breast!

The good cheer of "The Heavenly Banquet" gave way to the grief of "The Crucifixion".  But our favorite was and always will be, "The Monk and His Cat" which struck us as a great recipe for a good relationship--alone together, each with his own work, neither hindering the other, without tedium or envy.

Focusing on feminism, Ms. Bullock chose selections from a late work by Gabriel Fauré--La chanson d'Ève. She spent some time explaining the work and its theme of unfolding as the biblical Eve tries to find her place in the world.

There was quietude and simplicity in the piano at first but we heard some lovely rippling figures in "Veilles-tu, ma senteur de soleil".

The last set comprised bluesy and jazzy numbers highlighting the Afro-American experience, and especially that of women. Ms. Bullock took pains to tell us when the female member of the composing team had been neglected, like Pat Castleton, the wife of the credited composer Spencer Williams, for the song "Driftin' Tide". It was here that we began to appreciate the artist's strength at the lower end of the register.

Maceo Pinkard's "You Can't Tell the Difference After Dark" was written for Alberta Hunter. Sometimes humor can be a good method of confronting prejudice.  We also heard "Downhearted Blues" made famous by Bessie Smith, and "Our Love is Different" by Billie Holliday.

Two Nina Simone songs made an appearance. "Revolution", in an arrangement by Ms. Bullock herself, was sung a capella and ended in a stunning vocalise. Using a prepared piano, Mr. Arida accompanied Ms. Bullock in the very upsetting "Four Women", utilizing a repetitive and insistent motif.

As encores, we heard Connie Converse's "One by One" and finally, to make sure the audience left in a cheerful mood, Josephine Baker's "La Conga Blioti" which was so well done that we speculated on Ms. Bullock doing a one-woman show about Ms. Baker.

What an incredible evening!

(c) meche kroop

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