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Julia Bullock Expresses Josephine Baker

New York
Stanley Kaplan Penthouse, Lincoln Center
08/24/2016 -  
Tyshawn Sorey: Perle Noire: Meditations on Joséphine
Julia Bullock (soprano)
International Contemporary Ensemble: Tyshawn Sorey (piano and percussion), Alice Teyssier (flutes), Ryan Muncy (saxophones), Rebekah Heller (bassoon), Jennifer Curtis (violin), Daniel Lippel (guitar)
Peter Sellars (conception), Claudia Rankine (spoken texts)

(© Courtesy Mostly Mozart Festival)

Julia Bullock, in collaboration with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and a leading composer in this group, Tyshawn Sorey, gets inside Josephine Baker in a club-like atmosphere in Lincoln Center.

Bullock, an up and coming American soprano, made her mark as the Vixen in Leos Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. She caught the eye of Peter Sellars, who created Teculihuatzin/Dona Luisa in The Indian Queen, a character he developed from Purcell, just for her. She wowed audiences at Teatro Real in Madrid. After winning the Young Concert Artists Competition, Bullock has often taken her beautiful and heartfelt interpretations of song literature out of concert halls and into the community.

She joined an outreach program of New York’s Carnegie Hall to sing at a church. Her program was wide-ranging. In John Cage’s She is Asleep, Bullock lulled us and then opened us to listen. Cage, of course, has written for solo instruments, often in one line, so that melodies and phrases within phrases stand out. In Bullock’s voice, his notes sound like a beckoning.

Poulenc’s song cycle The Short Straw was translated from the French by Bullock herself. You can hear how well she understands the words as she breathes life into them, quietly at times, and then in exuberant rips. She told us that the songs of both Poulenc and Mussorsky, who followed, had been written three years before they died. They are nursery songs, but often dark. Yet as Bullock interprets them, the sheer beauty of the voice casts light.

Light is also cast as she interprets the American artist Josephine Baker. Here her lovely wide-ranging soprano rang out, but it is the intimacy of her performance that strikes the heart. Her take on Baker is dark, and deeply felt. Racism has been, is, and continues to be a central issue of American life. You feel its impact in this portrait of Baker. Songs are embedded in Claudia Rankine’s text based on Baker’s writing.

Bullock’s interpretation is both impelled and underlined by the adventurous composer, Tyshawn Sorey. Sorey plays the piano and a variety of percussion instruments. Members of ICE join him on flute, saxophone, bassoon, electric guitar and violin. His arrangement of songs associated with Baker were moving as Bullock interpreted. When she kicks up her bare feet and dances a de-constructed Charleston, the music is on beat. Yet the score feels improvised.

Sorey is a polymath of music. From early exposure to gospel which his mother sang he spread out to country, blues, other types of jazz expression, classical, and dance music. His music abounds in provocative moves which both extend and detail Baker’s portrait. The music searches. So too does Bullock, searching for the internal essence of Josephine Baker.

Like the blues Baker’s persona was born of pain. Baker often dressed in white. She even famously dressed in real bananas, outdoing Chiquita in spades. Bullock chooses a slinky black dress, which forms a second black skin. She is African American through and through and the experience of color is the quintessence of Bullock’s take.

The first song, Bye Bye Blackbird, was often hurled at participants in civil rights marchers in the US. Bullock moves with her subject from English into French. She sings of love, of love disappointed and lost, and finally inhabits the deep pain of being black in America.

One song suggests the high energy and exuberance that were part of Baker’s attraction. Yet we are most often in a dark place, where Baker struggled from birth on to find a place in white America. Baker tried coming home to America, but could not stay here.

Sorey composes to capture the jazz rhythms of the times, but often adds dissonance and even harshness to evoke the pain Baker experienced. Even the combination of flute, saxophone and bassoon arrests the ear in its unusual and uncomfortable texture.

As a performer, Sorey sits at the piano and brushes a nearby drum, picks up a recorder, and then leaps to the giant bass drum to produce almost funeral booms. Jennifer Curtis on the violin would launch a line from Bullock, or accompany her with yearning and suffering. The electric guitar is strident as Bullock presses forward. No emphasis is obvious, but rather a subtle underlining, a collaboration between the ensemble and singer.

Baker was a woman of many parts and Bullock enlivens them. She particularly expresses what black critic Albert Murray calls swinging elegance. She catches the pain of the blues.

In the darkened Stanley Kaplan Penthouse, transformed into a night club with hopeful candles twinkling on table tops, no one could escape the heart ache of a black person born in America. Bullock and Sorey capture its feel in dissonance, harsh tones and also in elevated triumph. This was an incomparable evening of music tailored to intimately arrest and move listeners.

Susan Hall



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