From Barber to Baker, Schubert to Simone, Julia Bullock shines

May 3, 2018 at 11:53 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Julia Bullock, with pianist John Arida, ranged from lieder to blues in Celebrity Series debut Wednesday night at Pickman Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Julia Bullock, with pianist John Arida, ranged from lieder to blues in her Celebrity Series debut Wednesday night at Pickman Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

What’s a classical voice recital without some Nina Simone? In a superb Celebrity Series debut Wednesday night at Pickman Hall, Julia Bullock sang every classical number in her program — from Schubert to Fauré to Barber — with terrific panache, and delivered a stunning last set of bluesy and spiritual Americana anchored by the celebrated “high priestess of soul” Simone.

Bullock is the real deal. A charismatic stage presence, she has a magnificent instrument that projects evenly and betrays no problem spots: the low register is dark and honeyed, the middle one warm and rounded; the top gleams. Her intonation is spot-on, her diction crystalline. And her interpretive arsenal includes a powerful range of shadings, from dusky to clarion, all totally controlled and thoughtfully employed.

Wednesday’s recital demonstrated all of these characteristics. Bullock’s opening set of four Schubert songs came across as a series of deeply personal vignettes. The first, “Suleika,” was marked by burning intensity, especially over the three iterations of the closing stanza, which shifted, largely through Bullock’s breathtaking tonal contrasts, from bitter frustration at a lover’s physical distance to resigned acceptance of the fact. “Seligkeit,” the closer, tripped along gracefully, its high notes blazing.

A fervent performance of Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, a setting of ten anonymous 13th century Irish texts, followed. Bullock navigated Barber’s often-angular melodic writing with ease and precision. She imbued each song with a distinctive character, from the epic “At St. Patrick’s purgatory” to the humorous “The heavenly banquet” and the introspective “The desire for hermitage.” The popular “The monk and his cat” was winsomely done and Bullock floated the last, soft high note of “St. Ita’s vision” with a dazzlingly light touch.

Excerpts from Gabriel Fauré’s La chanson d’Ève (The Song of Eve) followed intermission. Bullock sang the six selections with robustness and warmth, nailing the climax of “Roses ardentes” and bringing an electrifying mystery to the unsettled chromaticism of the final “Ô mort, poussière d’étoiles.”

After this came the final, blues-oriented set that celebrated the underappreciated contributions of women composers and lyricists in American song.

During these half-dozen numbers, nearly all of them arranged by Jeremy Siskind, Bullock sang with heat. The blues numbers, “Driftin’ Tide” by Spencer Williams and Pat Castleton, and “Downhearted Blues,” by Alberta Hunter and Cora “Lovie” Austin, were compellingly rendered.

Around and between came Maceo Pinkard’s risqué “You Can’t Tell The Difference After Dark,” in which Bullock channeled a bit of Audra McDonald, and Siskind’s “Frog Tongue Stomp,” the latter a solo piano tribute to the bandleader and composer Austin. It was vigorously performed by John Arida, whose accompaniments throughout the night were excellent — and who’s a mean blues pianist, to boot.

Billie Holliday’s “Our Love is Different” made for a powerful central interlude, and then came the Simone pieces. Bullock sang the first, “Revolution,” as an a capella anthem. For the second, “Four Women,” she was joined by Arida playing a prepared piano. Here, the keyboard’s various altered pitches lent this study of four characters whose names bear little relationship to their hard life experiences a forceful resonance; Bullock conveyed their stories with passion.

The first encore, Connie Converse’s “One by One,” was, in another Siskind arrangement, rich and melodious, echoing Schubert and any number of spirituals in about equal measure. For the second, a spirited Josephine Baker number, “La Conga Blicoti,” Bullock broke into a bit of choreography — a notable accomplishment, given that she’d been nursing a sprained foot all evening. The ailment slowed her here as much as it did anywhere else in the two-hours-plus program — which is to say not at all.

The Celebrity Series continues with pianist Yuja Wang performing Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Ligeti and Prokofiev, 8 p.m. May 11 at Jordan Hall.; 617-482-6661.


Posted in Performances

One Response to “From Barber to Baker, Schubert to Simone, Julia Bullock shines”

  1. Posted May 04, 2018 at 8:42 am by Jane Howarf

    That performance will stay with me for a long time. Barca, Julia!!

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