Washington Performing Arts Society/Young Concert Artists: Julia Bullock, Soprano, With Renate Rohlfing, Piano by Leslie Weisman

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Sunday afternoon’s recital at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, the Alexander Kasza-Kasser Concert in the Young Concert Series, was a musically and intellectually adventurous expedition that testified absorbingly to the qualifications of the prize’s recipient, Julia Bullock.  Bullock, who in “A Note from the Artist” wrote that “when developing a new program, I consider its content reaching beyond the concert hall,” proved herself not only an accomplished vocalist and insightful interpreter, but an astute and engaging commentator on twenty-three songs by fourteen composers spanning three centuries. (Seven, counting one of the songs’ text).

Julia Bullock. Photo by Christian Steiner.
Julia Bullock. Photo by Christian Steiner.

In a program ranging from an anonymous 14th Century Sicilian poem set to self-described “quirkily chaotic” music by a 20th Century composer; to a piece written for and inspired by the soprano by a celebrated, multiple-award-winning Millennial; to American spirituals and French chansons—Bullock brought it all off, with finesse, panache, tenderness, reverence . . . or slinky sass.

YCA Composer-in-Residence David Hertzberg wrote Ablutions of Oblivion (having its world premiere here) for her, Bullock told us, then added that the “time of solitude” soon to be upon us with the approaching storm was “a wonderful time to meditate,” with “sun glistening on the snow.”  The lyrics for the two songs, wrote Hertzberg in a program note, were taken from two poems in Wallace Stevens’ 1923 collection “Harmonium”—the first, Sur les rives du léthé, after “Banal Sojourn”; the second, Oubli céleste, after “The Snow Man”—that “express dichotomous states of sensory oblivion.”

Bullock penetrated their denseness intelligently and intuitively, her tonal variety and modulatory richness evoking the “languid . . . hallucinatory metaphor” of the first, her icily pinpointed shrieks and closing, lightly mournful yet unsurprised tone and mien the “landscape, barren and stoic” of the second. Rolfing was an able collaborator, her pinky finger picking out with frigid precision the icicles on the keyboard in a chillingly tuneless, lugubrious conclusion. With an enthusiastic reception from the audience as the last note died away, the composer leapt upon the stage, and the three happily embraced.

The three selections from Luciano Berio’s Quattro canzoni popolari (“Four Popular Songs”) could not have been more different, and in some cases, more difficult. Dolce cominciamento (“Sweet Beginning”) was dolce indeed, Bullock’s easy, creamy, focused tone a sheer pleasure to listen to. La donna ideale (“The Ideal Woman”) allowed the singer to playfully play both suitor and sought-after, assuming the two characters and relishing each role both vocally and dramatically with equal verve and enjoyment. Ballo (“Dance”) was a ululating lament on the lunacy of love, skillfully studded with puppy-like yaps and yelps.

The first of the (Gioacchino) Rossini selections, the “Stabat mater,” from his Mi lagnerò tacendo, was similarly surprising; here, though, both for the abrupt shift in tone, and because it flew in the face of the popular perception of the “bubbly champagne” the music of Rossini is often compared to, and almost irresistibly evokes. A reflective piece composed in the aftermath of nearly two decades of illness and depression, Bullock brought to it a dark richness, a technical facility, and an impressive command of dynamics. The section concluded with his Sorzico (“I Complain But in Silence”), whose grindingly but hilariously congenital contradiction Bullock clearly enjoyed exploiting.

Introducing Olivier Messaien’s Chants de terre et de ciel (“Songs of Earth and Heaven”), Bullock became your favorite teacher as she gave her attentive audience some background on the song: friendly; patient; eager to see that you got it; hoping that you’d remember it. Bail avec Mi (“Lease with Mi”)—“Mi” being Messaien’s nickname for his first wife, “lease” a teasing reference to togetherness—was lovely and warm, with a gentle and affectionate tone. Fittingly, the next one up was a sharp, well-nigh eviscerating contrast, from the composer’s Harawi, chants d’amour et de la mort (“Harawi, Songs of Love and Death”).

Bullock lit into Katchikatchi les étoiles (“Katchikatchi the Stars”) with the martially merciless aggressiveness it demands (“ . . . Ionized laughter, clock’s fury/to murder absent/Chop off my head,/its figure rolls in blood! . . .”; here again, Messaien was his own lyricist).  Rolfing’s deft fingers followed with preternatural responsiveness as she navigated the fiendishly difficult musical equivalent of the childhood challenge to pat your head with one hand while rubbing your tummy with the other, the right hand following the singer maniacally while the left strummed soothing chords.

L’amour de Piroutcha (“The Love of Piroutcha”), a poetic exchange at once contemplative and terrifying between a Young Girl and a Young Man, showed Bullock at her most electrifying, the top notes thrillingly explosive with an undercurrent of eerie control, the song’s ending “amour, la mort” (love, death) an incomplete rasp, broken off. The final Messaien, Résurrection (pour le jour de Pâques) (“Resurrection, for Easter Day”) was stirring and declamatory, as befits the event it celebrates (“ . … ‘I am risen, I am risen./I rise: towards you, my God, Alleluia. From earth to heaven I go.’ . . . ”), Bullock’s eyes on fire, her voice and demeanor filled with spiritual fervor.

But now, as before, suddenly the artistic and emotional winds would shift; this time, from the spiritual to the spirited, from the fervent to the fevered: to Josephine Baker, the iconic African American singer and dancer whose shimmering star burst upon the stages of 1920s Paris and left a lasting legacy that Bullock evocatively recalled, with six songs arranged by jazz pianist Jeremy Siskind.

Mon coeur est un oiseau des îles (“My Heart Is an Island Bird”), by Marseilles-born composer Vincent Scotto, who wrote several scores for French New Wave film master Alain Resnais (whom we lost on Saturday, at the age of 91), was rendered by Bullock with warmth and delicacy, and an intimate understanding of song and singer. “She and I have a lot in common,” Bullock said, giving us a précis of Baker’s bio along with her own. For the great black diva, singing as a bird in a cage on stage was “a moment of great liberation,” because she was confiding something that could have been seen as embarrassing, but instead, owning it, and flinging it in the faces of those who would marginalize her. It was, in effect, Bullock declared, “a liberation for all people. Not just black people.”

The singer visibly reveled in the rhythms of Cuban composer Armando Oréfiche’s La conga blicoti (“The Blicoti Conga”), which he recorded with Baker (it can be heard in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris), caressing the notes with a sweet but sly flirtatiousness that captured Baker’s appeal. Other Baker favorites included Scotto’s J’ai deux amours (“I Have Two Loves”), Mairiotte Almaby’s Madiana, and Léo Lelièvre’s Dis-moi Josephine (“Tell Me, Josephine”) and Si j’étais blanche (“If I Were White”), in which Bullock foot-stompingly played an imaginary mouth harmonica, bringing two people in the front row to spring up from their seats and applaud.

Photo by Hiroyuki Ito (The NY Times).
Photo by Hiroyuki Ito (The NY Times).

Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge was represented with three of the songs in his cycle Cinco canciónes negras (“Five Black Songs”): Punto de Habanera (Siglo XVIII) (“Habanera Point (18th Century)”), Chévere (“Cavalier”), and Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito (“Cradle Song for a Little Black Boy”), with whose gently rocking syncopation Bullock created a lullaby of almost corporeal tenderness.

Turning to African American composers, Bullock turned her vocal style, tone, and even production to that of the traditional black spiritual, letting the tones vibrate visibly on her upper lip and ending the song with a delayed, exquisitely decrescendoing hum. Oscar Brown, Jr.’s Brown Baby, a mother’s proud, strong, loving invocation of the possibilities and expectations for her son, made famous by Nina Simone, was sung with quiet determination by Bullock, whose shining eyes and unyielding gaze bespoke the mother’s abiding faith, in the face of dispiriting odds.

Billy Taylor’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, a civil rights anthem whose 1967 recording by Simone was arguably the apex of its popularity, was seized by Bullock but, rather than flinging it out to the audience, held it intensely close, her arms thrust skyward at the end with achingly deliberate slowness.

The last piece, Harry T. Burleigh’s arrangement of the 19th-century Sunday school favorite Little David (Play on Your Harp), concluded the concert in a rousing spirit of bonhomie and, somehow, mutual accomplishment. Which may have been behind Bullock’s surprising choice, at least at first glance, for an encore: Somewhere, from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. And yet—perhaps not.

“When you’re an artist you’re searching for freedom,” Bullock quotes American portrait artist Alice Neel in “A Note from the Artist.” But “You’ll never find it, because there ain’t any freedom. But at least you search for it. In fact,” said Neel, “art could be called ‘The Search.’ ”  There’s a place for us,/Somewhere a place for us/Peace and quiet and open air/Wait for us /Somewhere.

Whether Julia Bullock believes, along with Alice Neel, that “there ain’t any freedom,” or still hopes, along with Maria, that “Peace and quiet and open air” are out there somewhere, her commitment to using her “creative and interpretive abilities to contribute to society” offers audiences the opportunity to explore the question with her, and seek their own answers to it. Or just enjoy a stimulating, musically and intellectually enriching, thoroughly satisfying concert.

Running time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Washington Performing Arts Society: Julia Bullock, soprano, with Renate Rohlfing, piano played on March 2, 2014 at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater-2700 F Street, NW; in Washington, DC. For future Kennedy Center events, check their performance calendar.