As the soprano Julia Bullock sang the song “Lay This Body Down” in Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sept. 15, an image of Thornton Dial’s Shadows of the Field was projected above the stage. The artwork, a visceral collage of string, cotton, burlap, cloth rags and nails, was part of the museum’s recent exhibition “History Refused to Die,” a fascinating collection of quilts, paintings, and sculptures by self-taught African American artists from the deep south.
Titled “History’s Persistent Voice,” Bullock’s concert was the inaugural offering of her five-program MetLiveArts residency, and was inspired in part by the exhibition. Bullock devised the series to highlight marginalized American voices: upcoming events include a tribute to Langston Hughes featuring Bullock, the soprano Nicole Cabell and the clarinetist Anthony McGill, and a performance of El Cimarrón, a work inspired by the autobiography of the Afro-Cuban slave Esteban Montejo.
Melancholic, whispered violin passages prefaced Bullock’s entrance in “Lay This Body Down,” the third selection in a cycle called Five Slave Songs by the violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery, who set texts adapted from Slave Songs of the United States: The Classic 1867 Anthology. In “I want to go home,” the cycle’s second song, strings played a subdued, uneasy accompaniment as Bullock sang “Dere’s no rain to wet you / O yes, I want to go home”—the phrase descending mournfully on the word home. The mood became more agitated as she sang the words “Dere’s no hard trials,” her voice soaring as she rendered the lyrics “Dere’s no whips a crackin’ / O yes, I want to go home” with a plaintive power.
At one point in the fifth song, “The Day of Judgement,” the musicians tapped out rhythms on the wood of their instruments as Bullock sang “You’ll hear the saint a singin’” with heartfelt conviction.
In each of the works on the program, performed by a nine-piece string ensemble, images by artists including Dial were projected above the stage. After Bullock read an excerpt from an interview with the quilt-maker Sue Willie Seltzer, the clarinetist Mark Dover played the languid solo of Courtney Bryan’s “The Hard Way” with elegant tone. An image of the “Nine-Block Housetop Quilt,”one of Seltzer’s stunning creations, was projected above the stage.
The lineup also included Allison Loggins-Hull’s vivid “Mama’s Little Precious Thing,” with text derived from an interview with Louise Williams, the granddaughter of the quilt-maker Willie “Ma Willie” Abrams. The program concluded with Tania León’s moody, rhythmically complex “Green Pastures,” with lyrics extracted from an interview with Dial. The title alludes to the artist’s haunting Green Pastures: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How to Fly, in which Dial used workers’ gloves to represent dead birds, signifying lives blighted by poverty, discrimination, and lack of opportunity.
Bullock’s voice sounded lovely throughout: expressive, soulful, and nuanced. Her overall performance, however, felt less spontaneous than in recent appearances. I recall being mesmerized during a 2014 recital, for example, by the way Bullock communicated with the audience. She seemed much more introverted on this occasion: she stood with a music stand in front of her, and barely looked up from the score during some songs. There’s no reason a singer shouldn’t use the score, but it can prove a barrier to engaging fully with listeners. Since the program consisted entirely of world premieres, I wondered whether Bullock had insufficient time to fully absorb the works or limited rehearsal time.
Nonetheless, it proved a worthy evening of new music by gifted women composers, a chance to savor Bullock’s gorgeous voice, and a welcome opportunity to learn about the vital contributions of under-appreciated African American visual artists.
Julia Bullock next performs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Dec. 2 at 3pm; metmuseum.org
Vivien Schweitzer is a New York based writer and pianist. She was a freelance music critic for The New York Times between 2006-2016, and has just written A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera, newly published by Basic Books in September 2018.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.