SAN FRANCISCO — “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Racial Injustice in the Classical Music Professions: A Call to Action,” a treatise by Susan Feder and Anthony McGill, bespeaks a cause approved of by many, acted upon by few — and then there is Julia Bullock.
A memorable demonstration of action in the concert hall took place in San Francisco Symphony’s Davies Hall on May 17, when Bullock presented a multimedia performance of what she calls “voices of the enslaved and those who lived through generations of convict leasing, share cropping, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.”
Bullock conceived “History’s Persistent Voice” in 2018 as part of her season-long residency at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The next performance is scheduled for Nov. 11 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of the orchestra’s Rock My Soul Festival.
Bullock says of the beginning of the project: “Several years ago, the composer Jessie Montgomery and I started going through this anthology that was released just after the Civil War. These educators and musicologists went all across the United States to newly freed communities of people who had been enslaved, and transcribed 136 lyrics and melodies, along with notes on performance practice, and stories about when these pieces were performed, under what context they were performed — some of them at times of rebellion, others during spiritual church services, others reflecting on hard times, laboring in the fields.”
To follow up on that, says Bullock, “I sought to find composers who could represent an incredible diversity of voices and of experience, a group of Black-identifying women who are tremendous, thoughtful musicians… who I felt could represent this incredible diversity of voices and of experience.”
Bullock’s husband, former San Francisco Symphony resident conductor Christian Reif, conducted members of the orchestra. California-based visual artist Hana S. Kim designed immersive video installations that appeared across multiple screens throughout the performance.
The concert featured three world premieres: Yarnell’s I Come Up the Hard Way and ain’t my home and Pamela Z’s Quilt. Also on the program: León’s Green Pastures, Loggins-Hull’s Mama’s Little Precious Thing, and Montgomery’s Five Freedom Songs, all commissioned and premiered by Bullock as part of the inaugural performance in 2018.
The intensity and impact of the concert was constant throughout the evening; musically it was mixed. The opening, with Montgomery’s work, was a high point: quiet, neoclassical sound, reminiscent of Korngold, supported Bullock in a lush, lyrical performance, with a few unshowy instances of an astonishing range.
Some of the music served as mere background to the text: Bullock’s diction was clear, her delivery straightforward, unaffected. Both of Yarnell’s 2022 premieres were powerful, inspired by visual works of Sue Willie Seltzer and Nellie Mae Rowe.
In Loggins-Hull’s “Mama’s Little Precious Thing,” lullaby and the blues coalesced into a song that was both sweet and resigned. The composer described “a play on Brahms’ music and traditional Southern musical idioms, including the blues and call-and-response.”
Pamela Z’s “Quilt” led the listener back to the Black community of Gee’s Bend, Ala., narration from a documentary film and the singer overlapping and enhancing the resulting musical structure. Cuban-American composer León’s dramatically starting and halting, moody, volatile “Green Pastures” was inspired by the late artist Thornton Dial’s “humility and love or nature.” The focus was on Dial’s “Green Pastures: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How to Fly,” the artist using workers’ gloves to represent dead birds, signifying “lives blighted by poverty, discrimination, and lack of opportunity.”
Between songs, Bullock recited prose and poetry ranging from an 1867 anthology to letters by convicts before their execution. She repeatedly stressed the connection between “being enslaved and being incarcerated.”
For Bullock to commission, curate, stage, direct, and perform “History’s Persistent Voice” was par for her course. This explosive, multi-tasking talent has been roaming the world, fighting for vital causes and receiving plaudits.
Naming Bullock the 2021 “Artist of the Year,” Musical America hailed her as “an agent of change,” recalling that her first public performance was singing spirituals with her sister in front of her home church’s all-white congregation in a historically segregated suburb of St. Louis, where she was born 35 years ago.
Integrating her musical life with community activism, she has organized benefit concerts for war-affected children and adolescents in Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Uganda, and St. Louis. She serves on the advisory board of Turn the Spotlight, which works to promote equity in the arts.
The Davies Hall event was also a kind of homecoming for Munich resident Bullock, who is among San Francisco Symphony music director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s eight Collaborative Partners. The group of is characterized as “visionary artists, thinkers, and doers joining the orchestra to embark on a future of experimentation by collaborating on new ideas, breaking conventional rules, and creating unique and powerful experiences.”
Bullock has vital links to both the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera. A decade ago, while still a student at Juilliard, she performed here with Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra. Shortly after that, she met composer John Adams, who has called her his “muse.”
Bullock sang the role of Dame Shirley in San Francisco Opera’s 2017 world premiere of Adams’ Girls of the Golden West and later starred as Kitty Oppenheimer in the composer’s Doctor Atomic at Santa Fe Opera.
Of the purpose of “History’s Persistent Voice,” Bullock has said: “Although cycles of targeted violence, oppression, and demoralization are ongoing, I believe it’s clear for every artist featured on this program that various forms of human expression can facilitate some manifestation of liberation and freedom.”