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Review: The Soprano Julia Bullock’s Brilliant Sincerity

What the soprano Julia Bullock loves about Kurt Weill’s music, she said during her recital at the Park Avenue Armory on Monday, is how it spins the personal into the universal.

You could say the same for her artistry. Even in her selection of this composer’s work: Weill, an exile artist whose sound exemplified Weimar Berlin before helping to shape Broadway’s golden age, was split between two countries. And Bullock, an American, has also built a life, and family, abroad in Germany.

Those dichotomies — old world and new, traditional classical music and pop — were teased out into an entire program at the Armory, where Bullock was joined by the game pianist John Arida. On the one hand, the evening was quintessentially her, in vocal character and preoccupations with historical and musical connections. It was also persuasive on its own, communicating swaths of feeling and meaning across two centuries of not art songs per se, but artful songs, making a case for the shared DNA of lieder, blues, the avant-garde, Broadway, radio hits and spirituals.

The Board of Officers Room at the Armory, one of the most intimate and ideal spaces for vocal recitals, is also particularly well-suited to Bullock’s specific sound. Her range is vast, with a bright, expansive top and a rich, smoky bottom. At its fullest, her instrument can engulf an auditorium, but she keeps those moments in reserve; her performances are not defined by their size.

Up close in a concert like Monday’s, you can get a moving sense of her sensitivity and insightful interpretations: the way she luxuriated in melody and emotion in Hugo Wolf’s “Bedeckt mich mit Blumen”; seemed to consider text anew while reciting it in Schubert’s “Rastlose Liebe”; took on different characters with a raconteur’s charm in Weill’s “The Princess of Pure Delight”; and transitioned from the lyricism of Rossini to the tongue-twisting, rustic extended technique of Luciano Berio’s “Ballo.”

In John Cage’s wordless Duet from “She Is Asleep,” Bullock nevertheless conveyed something like the journey of a Schubert song set to Goethe using only a primal vocalise against Arida’s prepared piano. Later, in Nina Simone and Weldon Irvine’s “Revolution,” she was unaccompanied, delivering anthemic force with absolute focus — immediately after the sweetness of Billie Holiday and Sonny White’s hopeful “Our Love Is Different.”

All of this contains the making of a brilliant artist. But what separates, and elevates, Bullock is how her personality comes across. As her recital unfolded on Monday, you could trace her thinking about music, politics, history and herself. At no point, however, did the evening slide into the polemical, in part because of her sincerity.

It’s there in musical choices, but also in the banter between songs and passionate arguments for, say, the poetic genius of Connie Converse. In the honesty of making a mistake and restarting, explaining she had been up since 4:30 a.m. with a 10-month-old child. And in saying “my feet hurt” before introducing her encore, Schubert’s “Seligkeit” as a bookend for the program’s opener of his “Suleika I.”

That’s why you truly listen as she describes how the text for “Suleika I” was originally attributed to Goethe when it was in fact by Marianne von Willemer, or how Pat Castleton gets a Library of Congress credit for “Driftin’ Tide” but is virtually absent elsewhere in the historical record, and how this is representative of women being repeatedly undercredited in music.

You might feel motivated, even empowered, to follow Bullock’s encouragement to “look up some of these names.” With her as their musical shepherd, it would be hard not to.

Julia Bullock and John Arida

This program repeats on Wednesday at the Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; armoryonpark.org.

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