I found myself tearing up during soprano Julia Bullock’s recital on Sunday afternoon.
It happened several times. It happened when she started singing in a luminous full voice, round and shining and shifting and elusive as a ball of mercury, simply because the sound she was making was so beautiful.
But this wasn’t the sound of a singer who is focused only on beauty: This sound was beautiful because it meant something. Bullock is such a communicator that it was impossible to divorce the beauty of the notes from the content of what they were conveying. And there was plenty in that content to touch the heart.
This was not your routine recital program. The first set wove together three of Luciano Berio’s folk song arrangements, which premiered in 1964, with two little wisps of song by the elderly Gioachino Rossini, all about love and loss and infatuation. The second set was the world premiere of a two-song cycle by the 23-year-old composer David Hertzberg called “Ablutions of Oblivion,” earnest and slightly overlong settings by a young, undeniably talented composer of two poems by Wallace Stevens: “Banal Sojourn,” heavy with summer somnolence, and “The Snow Man,” limned in icy piano tones on by the accompanist Renate Rohlfing.
The third set, four songs by Olivier Messaien, juxtaposed the wild, folk-like frenzy of two songs from the cycle “Harawi: Songs of Love and Death” with the ecstatic celestial serenity of “Songs of Earth and Heaven,” concluding, at the end of “Résurrection,” with the sound of a literal ascent into a realm higher than a human voice can attain. The song ended with a little pop and fell back to Earth; the sense of spiritual elevation remained.
And having left one wondering how she could top this ethereal, brilliant first half, Bullock followed it with a second half that was even more deeply personal: an examination of African American identity, delivered, improbable as it may sound, with the same light, deft, pithy touch.
Bullock opened with an homage to the iconic Josephine Baker (after joking about their common ground, starting with their hair, she said). This consisted of six songs arranged by Jeremy Siskind, from “Mon coeur est un oiseau des iles” by Vincent Scotto to “Dis-moi Joséphine” by Leo Lilièvre, in which Bullock gently and unobtrusively went back and forth across the stylistic line between popular and classical styles of singing: focusing on delivering the texts, but with the extra opulence of that shining vocal beauty.
Ending this set with “Si j’etais blanche,” in which the singer coquettishly, rhetorically, poignantly asks, “Must I be white to please you better?” Bullock and Rohlfing moved without pause into “Punto de Habanera,” one of Xavier Monsalvatge’s “Cinco Canciones Negros,” which gave a different perspective: It’s a sensual description of a “Creole girl,” her white dress contrasting with her dark skin, walking down the street scrutinized by sailors, an object of simmering, even salacious, desire.
And concluding that set of three Montsalvatge songs with “Cradle song for a little black boy,” Bullock moved equally seamlessly into Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Brown Baby,” shifting her voice easily from the light, clear, seeming artlessness of the Montsalvatge to a heavier, even more poignant depth. (It’s nominally a jazz song, but such categories made little difference here.) There followed “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” an aching anthem by Billy Taylor, and finally, as a pendant to Messaien’s ecstatic “Résurrection” at the end of the first half, an arrangement of the spiritual “Little David, Play on Your Harp,” by Harry T. Burleigh.
Rohlfing was a worthy partner, particularly during a first half that called for her to do some heavy lifting. She found a common thread of silver running through both the Hertzberg songs and the Messiaen. And her delicacy of touch supported the high expressive goals of a program — jointly presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society and Young Concert Artists, whose competition Bullock won in 2012 — that showed a gifted and committed artist stepping outside the norm with a fiercely personal statement that transcended questions of “familiar” and “unfamiliar” and was able to touch everyone lucky enough to be at the Terrace Theater.
The encore was “Somewhere,” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” I am sure I was not the only one whose eyelids prickled.