My friend Tom took me to a recital on 3/11/14, as part of the Young Concert Artists Series. He and his wife are subscribers and really enjoy it. The organization was formed in 1961 - - they have a competition for young musicians and give the winners concert engagements, management services, and guidance. Lots of great, A-list musicians have gone through this program, including Dawn Upshaw, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Emanuel Ax, the Kavafian sisters, and the Tokyo String Quartet. I’d never been to one of their concerts in New York, but had turned pages for many concerts in their series in Madison, back in the day. The musicians are always first class and eager to show what they can do.
Last night’s artist was soprano Julia Bullock with pianist Renate Rohlfing. They presented an amazing program of songs. The first set alternated between Italian 20th century weirdo Luciano Berio with Rossini. Berio, Rossini, Berio, Rossini, Berio. The Berio songs were written in a pseudo antique style, and they worked beautifully with the Rossini. Clearly Bullock isn’t interested in doing a typical recital program, and this was her version of a first set, which is often a Handel aria or something similar that warms up the singer and the audience. Her Italian was delicious.
The next set was a new song cycle by David Hertzberg, who is the Young Concert Artists’ Composer-in-Residence. The cycle is titled *Ablutions of Oblivion* - - how do you like them eggrolls? Right up there with *River of Fundament*. He set two Wallace Stevens poems, “Banal sojourn” and “The snow man”. Bullock and Rohlfing performed them with total conviction, they gave these songs their all and he can’t have asked for a better performance. I didn’t like the music. It had the fragrance of great music, but not the food that produces the fragrance. His standpoint, clearly, is why have four notes in a chord, when you can have twelve? That makes one a little weary after a while, plus the texture and rhythm were too unvaried. Worst of all, he had a repetitive piano interlude in the middle that probably went on for about two minutes, but felt like twenty. Come on already. The composer is only 23 (is it a little tacky to have your age in your bio?), hopefully he’ll develop in a way that I appreciate - - or maybe I’ll never hear any of his music again!
She ended the first half with the music I was most eager to hear, four songs by French composer Olivier Messaien. Two songs I’d never heard before from his cycle *Songs of earth and sky*, with two songs from *Harawi* sandwiched in the middle. I’ve been crazy for *Harawi* for at least fifteen years, but had never heard any of it live - - they totally nailed it, it was thrilling. Messaien wrote virtuosic piano music unlike anyone else, and Rohlfing went after it like a dog with a bone. She was fearless and crisp and expressive and transcendent. Bullock sang beautifully and went to the modern exotic place that Messaien conjures up in the music. I would so love to hear these two do the whole *Harawi* cycle, it would be a stunner.
The second half was fascinating. The first set was six songs that had been popularized by Josephine Baker, arranged by the contemporary jazz pianist Jeremy Siskind. Bullock explained that she’d felt an affinity with Baker for years, both being African-American women from St. Louis who got out of town to make their careers. A word about what she was wearing: she had a lovely black lace dress for the first half of the recital, showing off her slim shape, nearly backless in the back. She changed into a champagne silk dress for the second half, a similar silhouette, but more sleek and with a chiffon and sequin inset along the back. Gorgeous, and perfect for the Baker. She did a short spoken intro about Baker and then picked up a necklace off the piano, put it on, and did the six songs. She dipped into a Baker impersonation here and there, which was a sweet touch, never gimmicky.
The other songs on the program were three of the five *Canciones negras* of Xavier Montsalvatge, and three songs rooted in the African-American experience, “Brown baby” by Oscar Brown Jr., “I wish I knew how it feels to be free” by Billy Taylor, and “Little David” by Harry Burleigh. These three last songs were arranged by the same guy who did the Baker songs, Jeremy Siskind. The interesting thing is how she performed these six songs: typically, in a recital, the artist walks offstage between each set, which is what she did on the first half, but she went from the Baker to the Montsalvatge to the three final songs with no break. The only interruption between the last Baker song and the first Montsalvatge song was the few seconds it took for her to take off the necklace and put it back on the piano. It was wonderfully theatrical.
The last song on the program, “Little David”, was up tempo but rather gentle. I would have liked something a little more rousing. “Ride on, King Jesus” comes to mind. No man can a-hinder me! But a gentle final song pointed in the direction of a deeply meaningful encore - - she did “Somewhere” from *West Side Story*, which she’d recently sung with the San Francisco Symphony. She sang it beautifully.