The recital by Julia Bullock, presented by Vocal Arts D.C. in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Monday evening, had many things going for it. The American soprano had a winning stage presence, a diverse and eclectic program, and a crackerjack musical partner in pianist Renate Rohlfing. It was easy to see why she has become the darling of many critics.
Bullock’s sparkly persona went a long way in selling experimental songs by Henry Cowell and John Cage. The former’s “How Old Is Song?” had Rohlfing directly strumming and plucking the piano strings like the harp of Orpheus, and in the latter’s “She is Asleep,” Bullock’s primordial, wordless vocalise was accompanied by the unexpected percussive sounds of Rohlfing’s piano. Bullock excelled when she had a character to incarnate, most vividly in a set of half-spoken cabaret songs by Kurt Weill and when she felt a connection to music “that is authentic to me,” as she put it. William Grant Still’s “Breath of a Rose” was gorgeous, as were two prayerful arrangements of spirituals by Hall Johnson and Harry T. Burleigh. She could even charm when singing texts that were basically nonsensical, like Cowell’s “Because the Cat” and Samuel Barber’s “Nuvoletta.”
In the other art songs on the program, her voice sounded less natural, heavy at the bottom and slightly strained at the top, with an intensely fluttering vibrato that sometimes caused the intonation to sag flat. In Ravel’s charming “Cinq melodies populaires grecques,” her swagger in the male-voiced songs “Quel galant m’est comparable” and “Tout gai!” was a hoot, but her voice did not lift effortlessly off the ground in the others, nor in a set of Scandinavian songs by Wilhelm Stenhammar and Edvard Grieg.