John Frayne: Young soprano offers stellar show; Sinfonia concert 'epic'

John Frayne: Young soprano offers stellar show; Sinfonia concert 'epic'

Soprano Julia Bullock made a very strong impression Feb. 9 at her Sunday Salon recital. The winner of the Young Concert Artists Award was born in St. Louis, earned a bachelor's degree at the Eastman School of Music and a masters at Bard College, and she is now a student at the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

Possessed of a voice that can go from a soft whisper to a fortissimo attack, Bullock is something of a vocal mime; she carefully suits her vocal to the style of the individual song. And she is obviously an accomplished actress, whose career might bring her success in opera or Broadway musicals.

To say that she offered an original and challenging program would be an understatement. Twenty-four songs were performed in Italian, French, Spanish and English. Most of the selections might have been unfamiliar to the audience.

The first, more serious part of the program, offered alternate Italian songs by Gioacchino Rossini, an early 19th century composer, whose style contrasted with that of Luciano Berio, a contemporary composer, who died in 2003.

Then came two song settings by 23-year-old David Hertzberg of dense and enigmatic poems from Wallace Stevens. Bullock etched a stark difference in mood between these two knotty texts. Four songs by the French mystical composer Olivier Messiaen, sung with dramatic abandon, brought the first part of the program to a close. At the piano, Renate Rohlfing was an excellent collaborator, especially in the playing of Messiaen's clangorous accompaniments.

Things lightened up a bit in the second half. Bullock introduced her "Homage to Josephine Baker," in honor of the African-American singer who won fame in Paris in the 1920s after being ignored in the U.S. The six French songs, by four composers, were in a popular vein and offered Bullock full range for her mimetic acting skills. Then came three songs in Spanish by Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge, from his "Five Negro Songs."

The last group, consisting of three songs dealing with the African-American experience, ended with Harry T. Burleigh's "Little David, Play on Your Harp." Amid strong applause, most of the audience on the stage stood in appreciation. Bullock responded with a touching performance of "Somewhere" from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," a song she has sung with great acclaim elsewhere.

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Unfamiliar music was not a problem at the Feb. 14 Sinfonia da Camera concert. Ian Hobson directed a program of three famous Russian works from the last two centuries.

Violinist Andres Cardenes was soloist at the start of the program in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's familiar "Violin Concerto in D Major." Cardenes' excellence in playing the violin is familiar to local audiences. He joined Hobson and others in an evening of chamber music of Johannes Brahms last spring. With smooth velvety tone and rhythmically incisive playing, he projected a well-balanced reading of this concerto.

In the cadenza that ended the first movement, Cardenes played a high harmonic note almost inaudibly, but with each repetition, the volume slowly increased. The fast, brilliant finale drew exciting exchanges between the orchestra and Cardenes, and after the final chord, stormy applause broke out. The playing of the woodwinds was also excellent in this concerto.

And these same players, Jonathan Keeble, flute, John Dee, oboe, and Henry Skolnick, bassoon, did fine work in Sergei Prokofiev's "Symphony No. 1, the Classical." In this parody of the style of Mozart and Haydn, the bassoon played a droll role, as it frequently does in Haydn.

The climax of the evening was a splendidly played performance of the 1919 version of Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite." The "Infernal Dance King Kastchei" was thrilling, and as molded by Hobson, the crescendo in the "Finale" was overwhelming. Hornist Alex Manners got a well-deserved solo bow.

In the balcony, the audience was different from the usual. The next day, there was to be a string and orchestral clinic in the Foellinger for young players, and I was surrounded that evening by students from Hoffman Estates and Highland Park high schools. They were most enthusiastic listeners.

One young violist from Hoffman Estates, who identified herself as "Carly B," offered me her judgment on the Stravinsky. It was "epic"! At the end of the Stravinsky, most in the balcony were on their feet, applauding and cheering. Yes, there are young people who cheer for the classics!

John Frayne can be reached via email at frayne@illinois.edu.

Topics (1):Music

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