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Review: Soprano Julia Bullock Counts Race and Art in Powerful Vocal Recital

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Julia Bullock performs with conductor Christian Reif and the San Francisco Symphony, in front of a portrait of artist Nellie Mae Rowe as part of Hana S. Kim’s video screenings. Photo: Kristen Loken

It’s one thing to sing with grace, beauty and expressive depth, and quite another to design an evening’s program that places these musical gifts in an urgent and meaningful context.

Soprano Julia Bullock can do both.

“History’s Persistent Voice,” the dazzling and varied recital program Bullock unveiled Tuesday, May 17 with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, brought together new works by five black women to present a tense musical symposium across an array of topics: race, freedom, art, language, motherhood and more.

And with her husband and collaborator, German conductor Christian Reif, leading members of the Davies Symphony Hall Symphony Orchestra in the performance, Bullock brought an almost supernatural measure of eloquence to the proceedings. It was music that simultaneously functioned as deep social commentary and pure sensual delight.

That is to say that Bullock, the American artist who is one of the eight Collaborative Partners that the musical director Esa-Pekka Salonen has gathered around him to revitalize and rethink the possibilities of a symphony orchestra in the 21st century , is very much at work. . There was nothing about this 90-minute program without intermission that felt like business as usual.

Julia Bullock (left) with conductor Christian Reif and members of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Kristen Loken

Two thematic components permeated the program. One was the historical continuity of the black experience in America, a malevolent thread running unbroken from the institution of slavery – an ostensible relic that is neither forgotten nor gone – through the horrors of Jim Crow to the reality of mass incarceration in our time. And age.

For this first segment, Bullock and composer Jessie Montgomery drew inspiration from “Slave Songs of the United States,” an anthology published in 1867 that documented the words and melodies with which enslaved African Americans sought solace – spirituals, work songs, hymns of hope and desolation. .

Montgomery’s beautiful cycle “Five Freedom Songs” takes five of these historical curiosities and creates a web of edgy, evocative musical ornamentation around each. The core melodies and rhythms are recognizably intact, but Montgomery’s creative commentary breathes powerful new life into each.

In the harrowing “I Want to Go Home,” for example, she maintains a dull, haunting harmonic dissonance throughout, with chords that constantly waver on the verge of resolving but never do — not even at the end of the song.

‘Lay This Body Down’ coats a lofty melody with delicate spectral emanations, while in ‘My Father, How Long?’ Montgomery isolates the song’s powerful herky-jerky rhythms.

Soprano Julia Bullock (left) and composers Carolyn Yarnell, Allison Loggins-Hull and Pamela Z salute alongside conductor Christian Reif and members of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Kristen Loken

Bullock intertwined these songs with readings of poetic excerpts from contemporary inmates, Craig Anthony Ross and Joe Sullivan, who both spent decades on death row (one in San Quentin State Prison, the other in a Florida prison after being sentenced to death at 13 years). ). Only a fool could fail to sense the unbroken link between these two forms of physical and spiritual bondage.

The rest of the program was devoted to music inspired by the visual art of black creators, mostly women. While the relationship between these two segments was never clear — the evening felt more like two separate ventures than one integrated whole — the musical rewards were none the less resplendent.

They included “I Came Up the Hard Way,” California composer Carolyn Yarnell’s irresistible vocal treatment of a reminiscence by artist and quilt maker Sue Willie Seltzer, and a long setting to music by the American-born composer. Cuban Tania León from an interview with the American painter Thornton Dial. In “Mama’s Little Precious Thing,” New Jersey composer Allison Loggins-Hull rewrote Brahms’ lullaby in a bluesy, soulful version that tugged at the listener’s emotions.

Most powerful of all, however, was “Quilt,” by skillful San Francisco songwriter and performer Pamela Z. black music from Gee’s Bend, Ala., the piece transmutes the cadences of spoken language into delicate and irresistible melodic arabesques. Bullock’s delivery, here and everywhere, was both evocative and richly sweet.

In addition to the musical and spoken components, “History’s Persistent Voice” also featured video projections by Los Angeles set designer Hana S. Kim, an assortment of largely abstract colors and patterns that didn’t get in the way of the proceedings but did not didn’t add much either. . (Musicians keep insisting that visuals are a useful addition to their art, but they never seem to be able to pull it off.)

In a particularly raw and impactful moment, Bullock noted that the practices of racial discrimination and oppression extend everywhere, including the history of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra itself. Addressing this history is an urgent task for all arts organizations, and “History’s Persistent Voice” is a step in that direction.