Songs of passion and empathy from Julia Bullock at the Edinburgh International Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2023 [8] – Various: Julia Bullock (classical singer) and Bretton Brown (piano). Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 16.8.2023. (SRT)

Julia Bullock © Allison Michael Orenstein

Julia Bullock sang a really impressive Pamina in last weekend’s The Magic Flute at the Edinburgh International Festival, and this Queen’s Hall recital showcased a very different side of her performing life. Her Pamina stood out because hers is a more luxurious voice than that role normally receives, and that was on show in this concert, in beautifully articulated lieder by Schubert and Wolf where every word was carefully considered, and both piano and voice interacted to point up the emotion of the text as well as the music. Bullock’s voice has a rich, smoky texture, seemingly most comfortable in the middle of its range, with occasional bursts of light at the top. Those high passages could be a little approximate in places, but you can forgive a singer a lot when they are singing at 11am! Any such issues had disappeared by the time of her intelligent selection of Italian songs by Rossini and Berio, chosen for no other reason than that they sounded good together.

Note, however, Bullock’s self-designation as a ‘classical singer’, not a particular voice-type. At times this soprano sounded more like a mezzo, or even an alto, so secure and firm was the sound of her lower register. She put that to excellent use in her selection of songs by Kurt Weill, two of which involved more speaking than singing, which drew attention both to Bullock’s powers of communication and to Bretton Brown’s lively, responsive piano playing.

That lower register became even more essential for the second half of her concert, a series of twentieth-century songs by Black American women. There was a strong sense that Bullock was trying to speak for and with those women, not all of whom were recognised in their own lifetimes, and there is something wonderful about seeing an artist who identifies so passionately with their repertoire. It draws performances of deep conviction from them, as here with Bullock, nowhere more powerfully than in Nina Simone’s Four Women, songs about four women who had suffered some sort of oppression and whose sunny names did not reflect the darkness of their lives. Most unusually, she and Brown gave a very involved performance of John Cage’s She is Asleep for wordless voice and prepared piano. Sensuous vowels and clickety-clack piano sounds were a strange gateway into the concert’s second half. Nobody ever asked Pamina to do that!

Simon Thompson

The Edinburgh International Festival runs at venues across the city until Sunday 27th August click here for details.

Programme included amongst much else:
Schubert – Suleika, D720
Wolf – In dem Schatten meiner locken
Connie Converse 
& Jeremy Siskind – There is a vine
Kurt Weill –
The Princess of Pure Delight
Rossini – Stabat mater (Mi langerò)
Berio – Ballo
John Cage –
She is Asleep: II. Duet
Lovie Austin 
& Jeremy Siskind – Lovie Austin Tribute
Nina Simone
 & Jeremy Siskind – Four Women
Billy Taylor
Jeremy Siskind & Julia Bullock – I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free

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