Painful, Persistent Echoes Of Slavery Resound In Songs

‘Locked Up Their Minds,’ by Purvis Young, 1972, is one of several works by African-American artists from the South that served as inspiration for soprano Julia Bullock, the MetLive 2018-19 artist in residence. [Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014 (© 2018 Larry T Clemons / Gallery 721 / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY)]
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK – The rebranded MetLiveArts department at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has evolved from its roots as a conventional chamber music series to an important complement to the museum’s visual offerings. Under the direction of Limor Tomer, the series now presents compelling and often innovative performances by artists both established and emerging, and has been the incubator for numerous world premieres. History’s Persistent Voice, the Sept. 15 concert by 2018-19 artist-in-residence Julia Bullock, consisted entirely of new works by American women of color, all commissioned by the remarkable young soprano around the theme of modern slave songs.

Soprano Julia Bullock (Brent Arnold)

Bullock’s career has traced a fast rise in the four years since she earned her Artist Diploma from the Juilliard School. She has performed at opera companies worldwide, in both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles, recently making a splash as Kitty in Doctor Atomic in Santa Fe last summer. She is also an intriguing recitalist, committed to discovering repertoire that explores the African-American experience, frequently from a woman’s point of view.

This concert was designed to complement the exhibit History Refused to Die, works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization devoted to discovering and promoting the work of contemporary African-American artists from the South. In 2014, the foundation, established by Atlanta art scholar and collector William S. Arnett, donated to the Met a collection of 57 sculptures, paintings, quilts, and works on paper. The present exhibition displays 28 works by artists such as Purvis Young and Thornton Dial, and includes nine quilts by the talented women textile artists of Gees Bend (now Boykin), Ala.

I visited the gallery before the concert and was moved by the expressive vitality of this collection. More than just folk art, these powerful works were created with inspiration and skill that belied the artists’ humble circumstances. Afterwards, with some time left before the concert, I dashed into a pair of nearby galleries to see a bit of Heavenly Bodies, the current blockbuster exhibit of clothing created for or inspired by Catholic ritual. It was shocking to compare the extravagant decadence of centuries-old papal vestments and lavish contemporary couture gowns to the work I had just seen. Next to the American artifacts created from humble recycled materials, the ecclesiastical garments were a timely reminder of the persistence of extreme economic polarization, and an ironic prelude to the concert:

Thornton Dial’s ‘History Refused to Die,’ 2004, is made of okra stalks and roots, clothing, collaged drawings, tin, wire, steel, Masonite, steel chain, enamel, and spray paint. [Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014 (© 2018 Estate of Thornton Dial / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY)]
Bullock is an unusual singer. She seems to have two voices: a light lyric soprano, clear and warm, with an enticing smokiness, and an even warmer, wise-sounding mezzo – she sings both soprano and mezzo operatic roles. Her ease in blending that crystalline soprano with her husky chest voices gives her exceptional expressive range. She is equally persuasive in the most delicate of French repertoire and in earthy spirituals and work songs. Her diction is unaffected but perfectly intelligible, whether she’s singing textbook English or French, or a more vernacular southern English.

Bullock is self-assured, even fierce as a singer. You cannot look away. ( Paula Lobo)

This singular artist has a contradictory stage presence: Her demeanor at first seems diffident, but when she sings, she is fully self-assured, even fierce. She does not try to charm the audience; she instead appears to look within, gazing down or glancing at a colleague while allowing the emotions within her to take form before she starts to sing. The interpretation always feels fresh and honest. You cannot look away.

For the opening set, Five Slave Songs, Bullock was able to draw some inspiration from eye contact with the composer-arranger Jesse Montgomery, who also served as concertmistress. The beginning of the first song, the well-known spiritual “My Lord, What A Mornin’,” established a relatively calm baseline, as Bullock warbled prettily in and out of her operatic range, supported by a nine-piece string ensemble. Successive songs probed more deeply, expressing a yearning for death or an end to suffering; the verses had the rhythmic grind of work songs that conjured pictures of a chain gang. Bullock keened, growled, soared, often a cappella, which moments were some of the best.

Work clothes quilt by Annie Mae Young, 1976 [Metropolitan Museum
of Art, Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett
Collection, 2014]
Each song was illustrated with an image from the Souls Grown Deep collection projected above the stage. The power of those visuals and the harsh realities of the texts were sometimes at odds with Montgomery’s gentle accompaniments. The lush ensemble combined the refinement of a 19th-century chamber ensemble with the laid-back rhythmic swing of a jazz combo. It took Bullock’s intense delivery to communicate the sense of struggle and longing for release in death, especially the final violent imagery of a moon turned to blood and the world on fire.

A bit of respite was provided by Courtney Bryan’s “The Hard Way,” inspired by an interview with quiltmaker Sue Willie Seltzer, creator of the almost psychedelic quilt projected over the stage during the piece. Bullock read a brief passage by Seltzer about her mother and the values she taught her children, and then left the stage to clarinetist Mark Dover and the strings. A mournful, episodic meditation for clarinet and string ensemble, Bryan’s piece has a melancholic solo that recalled the soulful opening of Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto.

Fast-rising Bullock is a recent Juilliard graduate. (Christian Steiner)

Bullock returned to sing “Mama’s Little Precious Thing,” by Allison Loggins-Hull. The words were drawn from an interview with Louise Williams, granddaughter of quilt artist “Ma Willie” Abrams. Beginning with a quiet violin solo, with echoes of the famous Brahms lullaby, it swelled into a jazz-tinged reminiscence about Williams’s mother. The final, and strongest, work of the evening was Tania León’s “Green Pastures,” a jagged setting of reminiscences from Thornton Dial. Disjunct, and rhythmically intricate, it demanded more from both performers and audience than the more laid-back pieces heard on the program.

But none of the works was truly anodyne. The lyrics and readings offered an unstinting look at the hardships faced by so many African Americans today, conditions that are tantamount to contemporary slavery: labor exploitation, domestic insecurity, and incarceration. Bullock conveyed tenderness, anger, yearning, grief, and hope with open-hearted fervor and a pliant, bewitching sound that made the music seem greater than it was.

The 50-minute program, offered without no intermission, felt like a cabaret set thanks to atmospheric lighting, art slides, and spoken text. Unfortunately, the zone of intimacy didn’t quite extend to my seat near the back of the 700-seat auditorium, especially when Bullock softened her voice to a near whisper. But the soprano’s compelling charisma, musicality, and expressivity conveyed the power of her message even when I couldn’t quite catch all the nuances. I hope to be closer to the stage the next time I hear her in recital.

Julia Bullock will give four more programs during her Met residency season. The next concert, dedicated to the poetry of Langston Hughes, will be on Dec. 2, and her Josephine Baker program will be given in January. For tickets go here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!