BWW Review: Bullock's Back and the [Other] Met's Got Her

BWW Review: Bullock's Back and the [Other] Met's Got Her

Julia Bullock is at the Met in New York this year--but not necessarily the one that comes to mind when you're thinking about performances by an opera singer. It's the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the soprano kicked off her year as Artist-in-Residence (2018-2019) on Saturday night with "History's Persistent Voice," the first in a series of five concerts.

Of course, soprano Bullock is not your average opera singer but a unique artist, as I found out last spring when she appeared at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall, singing everything from Schubert to the Blues. (She's yet to perform a full-length opera in New York, except during her time at Juilliard.) She was, in a word, "spectacular"--as I wrote about the Weill concert--not a description I throw around too often, but as appropriate then as it was at her concert this weekend, though her recent outing was in most ways as different in style as it was in content.

If she has any diva-worthy tendencies, they weren't on view at the Met, in an event inspired by the museum's current show, "History Refused to Die." Yes, she's passionate, but only in the service of her material, whether old or new, and those who helped bring her arresting content to life. There never seemed to be any emotions not called for in the material.

Her demeanor changed as she gave herself over to the songs, using her brilliant voice smartly, by turns low-key, angry, mournful and inspired, and adding hand-clapping, snapping fingers and other effects as called for. Her voice also morphed in the course of the concert, starting out with a decidedly mezzo-ish sound, then moving into full-fledged soprano and back again.

Of course, she not only performed but programmed the evening, proving that the intelligence she displayed in her Weill recital was no one-trick-pony. Saturday's "History's Persistent Voice" consisted of the world premieres of music by four African American women composers.

Some were new settings by Jessie Montgomery (also violinist in the ensemble) of five traditional slave songs chosen by Bullock from "Slave Songs of the United States: The Classic 1867 Anthology" while others were new works on the same theme by Courtney Bryan ("The Hard Way"), Allison Loggins-Hull ("Momma's Precious Little Thing") and Tania Leon ("Green Pastures"). Each of the composers had the sense to take a musical approach that, even when moving into modest discord, made sense with the words being sung.

Bullock also showed her brilliance in choosing collaborators for the evening. There were nine string players--Karla Donehew-Perez, Jessie Montgomery, Robyn Quinnett, Melissa White on violin; Paul Laraia and Hannah Ross on viola; Julia Biber and Karlos Rodriguezon cello; and John-Paul Norpoth on bass--whose scintillating, sometimes rapturous renditions of the new music gave them as persuasive a performance as the composers could have wished for. Clarinetist Mark Dover was a standout, soaring soloist in composer Bryan's "The Hard Way."

Sandwiched in between the two groups was Bullock's telling reading by Sue Willie Seltzer, a quilter represented in "History Refused to Die," which is on view until September 23. The show consists of 30 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and quilts by self-taught contemporary African American artists, all from the south and part of a gift to the Met from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, and a number--notably the mixed media art of Thornton Dial--were projected during the musical numbers. It is "outsider art" at its most compelling.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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