Entertain, Educate, Repeat: Julia Bullock at Queen’s Hall Edinburgh

Julia Bullock © Allison Michael Orenstein
Julia Bullock © Allison Michael Orenstein

Julia Bullock & Bretton Brown

From: 16 Aug 2023

The Queen’s Hall
85-89 Clerk St
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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Rising star in the classical world Julia Bullock is not just a talented American soprano, but also a musical technician who spends much time behind the scenes working closely with arrangers and conductors to develop and intensify projects which she finds important. 

She has a warm, sociable onstage presence, taking some of the stiffness out of the room by occasionally joshing with the audience. Her range and technique though, are no laughing matter. Striding straight into a first half programme featuring Schubert, Wolf, Rossini and Berio, she steers her fulsome, rich timbre with grace and panache, chiming blissfully on the high notes while dropping to a hypnotic velvety whisper in the softer passages. 

Classical credentials intact, she then presents some diverse and quirky compositions with a promise to bring outsiders into the recital room. She is Asleep by John Cage, where the keyboard is converted into woodblocks by the addition of strange attachments, certainly fits that bill. Our soprano wails, wows and oohs, to a weird knocking sound. Bullock clarifies that she loves this piece since the singer can choose her own noises. Having agency over the work becomes an important theme for the rest of the recital. 

Further arresting moments include There is a Vine, a melodic piece by Connie Converse, the folk singer who went missing in 1974 and has never been found. The song has a touching, minimalist lyric moving in three parts toward an ambivalent poetic resolution. A sign perhaps, that Bullock, who worked with an arranger to refit the folksy guitar composition for piano, has a kinship with creative and brilliant women who, for various reasons have been wiped from history. 

The topic is sustained with a tribute to female band-leader Cora Lovie Austin which sees Bullock moving into full cabaret mode, grabbing a microphone and leaning on the piano. It’s a spiky, clever, visual number with a big dollop of ragtime, giving pianist Bretton Brown the opportunity to scamper across the keys like Chico Marx. But the sting in the tail is that female composers often aren’t credited for their input.

Child prodigy and activist Nina Simone is celebrated with Four Women – a shocking genealogy of slave girls whose given names are the opposite of their lived experience. The song gets a classical overhaul by Bullock, in a fresh and barbed interpretation, drawing to a breathless halt with a surge of applause from the audience.

Bullock flawlessly delivers a dynamic range of magnificent classical performances but is also unswerving in her mission to bring hidden political stories into the often rigid halls of classical music. It’s obvious that her stage is not just a place to entertain and enthral but also to enlighten and educate. This crowd really thanked her for it, with many rewarding her with yells of ‘Brava!’ (the American traditional female address of ‘Bravo!’), much thundering of feet and many encores.

With thanks to Malcolm McGonigle for this review.

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