The soprano Julia Bullock made me tear up at her recital on Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized that when I last heard her a couple of years ago, I said exactly the same thing.
Bullock, who sang in the National Gallery of Art’s echoing West Garden Court with the pianist John Arida, offers recitals that are so smart and pure and interesting, and sings them with such intense commitment, it’s hard to imagine she can sustain it. But sustain it she has. Sunday’s recital was no less personal and vivid and distinctive than the one I heard three years ago, while being completely different.
On paper, this looked more conventional, with songs by Schubert and Samuel Barber and Gabriel Faure. The journey culminated, though, in the 20th century, with songs by Nina Simone. And Bullock’s a cappella performance of Simone’s “Revolution,” filled with pain and anger and power (“The only way that we can stand in fact/ is if you get your discriminating foot off my back”), was so stunning that the audience rose to its feet, and even the singer needed a minute to collect herself afterward.
Song recitals tend to be bound by convention. Bullock’s seem vivid, organic and personal. Sunday’s program focused on songs by and about women, which became various expressions of herself. She also explicitly noted links between the Schubert songs that opened the program and some of the 20th-century ones that closed it. The first song on the program, “Suleika I,” was set to a text that, she said, proved not to be by Goethe but by his close friend Marianne von Willemer — and she related that to her final set of songs written by uncredited women, starting with “Driftin’ Tide,” by Spencer Williams and his wife, Pat Castleton.
And whatever the text or style, Bullock lost herself in it. In Barber’s cycle “Hermit Songs,” based on poems by Irish monks, an austere and craggy pendant to “Carmina Burana,” she found a spark even in the smallest fragment, a song of a single line. And in Faure’s “Chanson d’Eve,” she seemed to become the first woman on Earth, journeying to self-awareness, from awakening the world’s objects by giving them their names to questioning her own self-definition.
Her voice is easy and firm and radiant, with a secure low and a clear limpid top, yet never calling attention to the beauty of its own sound or its own technical abilities. She could also flip from classical to vernacular styles without artifice, digging into her low voice in songs such as “Downhearted Blues” (which made Bessie Smith a star in 1923). Her pianist, Arida, an ardent accompanist in the Schubert, proved equally flexible, catching fire in the accompaniments and in the solo piece “Frog Tongue Stomp: A Lovie Austin Tribute,” written by Jeremy Siskind, the young composer who arranged the songs in the final set.
It’s rare to come away from a recital quite so stimulated both intellectually and emotionally. From Bullock’s explication of the meaning of the Faure cycle to her introductions of the women in the 20th-century set, there was a lot of food for thought and further exploration. In a classical music world hungry for diversity, here is an artistic statement by a brilliant woman of color, who finally tore off the wraps of convention with the Simone songs (“Revolution” and “Four Women”), and then, hobbled by a sprained foot, stayed on stage for two encores. First came “One by One” by the midcentury singer-songwriter Connie Converse, who disappeared, deliberately, in the 1950s (it, too, reminded her of Schubert, she said); then a return to light with a song by Josephine Baker. It left me with a renewed willingness to go anywhere, in the future, that Bullock might offer to take me.