San Francisco Symphony 2019-20 Review: Esa Pekka-Salonen & Julia Bullock in Concert

Bullock Brings Profundity to Music by Ravel & Britten

By Lois Silverstein
(Credit: Brandon Patoc)

Esa Pekka-Salonen, Music Director Designate of the San Francisco Symphony, conducted a largely French program this past week with soprano Julia Bullock.

At the core of the program were two vocal cycles including Britten’s Illuminations and Ravel’s setting of poems by Mallarmé. Bookending these pieces was Henry Purcell’s Funeral March reframed by Steven Stuckey, and the Ballet Music for “Mother Goose.” It was a satisfying and captivating performance, diaphanous and crisp, fine as stardust, and solid as a rock.  The standing ovation in Davies Symphony Hall at the end of Part I was genuine.

Funeral Marches & Illuminations

The opening piece, Steven Stuckey’s reframing of Henry Purcell’s Funeral March for Britain’s Queen Mary II, was a grand opener. It was Purcell set for a larger ensemble.

It kept us alert and attentive in its brief but exact 10 minute. It was satisfying to enter into that realm especially in contrast to the far less formal concert pieces that would follow.

Enter Julia Bullock, in an artistic and elegant black dress, erect, dedicated, thoroughly authentic. “Illuminations”m Benjamin Britten’s youthful setting of nine poems from Arthur Rimbaud,  was her first contribution and  it was stunning, from start to stop. The enigmatic poems reflected a dense symbolistic matrix, odd combinations of thought, imagery, motifs designed to jolt a listener into new lines of thought and feeling. When he composed the songs, Britten apparently  was testing the waters to see what he could do with equivalents of Rimbaud’s unusual verbal combinations in musical sounds. Since he was not afraid of conflict and tension, he capitalized on the unique text.

For instance, ” Villes” the poem states, “These are cities./Groups of belfries [sic]that sing the ideas of the people/Unknown music pours forth from castles built of bone./These are cities… I alone have the key to this savage parade.” Here is the throb of symbolist pain and beauty, pinioned on cliff-edge. Britten offered these for our ears as well as our minds. Salonen and Bullock brought about a stunning experience tracing the instrumental and vocal trajectory with care and fastidious attention. The hall remained hushed throughout.

Bullock’s vocal range was substantial and luxurious. At the top of the register, she easily stretched and brought forth much volume and warmth. The upper middle seemed her comfortable range, with richness on either side; her voice seemed to be drawn from a well that had no immediate end.

She sang her own translations of the poems with intense passion and attention. Through each, she made sure to blend with its vision, however extreme, however subjective. Never was there aimless expression. Of the texts available to her, Bullock emphasized only the central, never the aimless, even for beauty.

Bullock never overdosed feeling either. She took her time, remaining energetic without trying to force. Her voice moved thoughtfully up and down the substantial part of the register in full arpeggios, clear, sometimes bell-like, always reverberating. She worked small intervals with care, making the most of every note. She was not going to leave the stage without telling us exactly what and showing us how each one meant something.

While the subject might be lament, it was not loss. Bullock expressed the young poet’s discontent, but in her sound there seemed nothing was unsalvageable. In fact, that’s what made the whole series of songs so satisfying: nowhere in her sound was there resignation. The poet behind the singer was saying, “Listen, this is how it is. Can you hear me? I want you to know. If you do, you may do something about it.” That is about how we see the world, which was what French Symbolists were trying for when they stepped on the scene.

Unlike some message-mongers today, Bullock incited rather than harangued her audience to see what the message was. Her vocal warmth and color illustrated the poems’ wide range of feelings, however dense the dense poetic lines. Sometimes the lines sounded were like falling water, and yet, they remained entirely embodied. With a closed eye, you could almost see a sliver of the surrender of an Isolde.

Esa Pekka-Salonen staged his musical vitality and vision in each musical phrase throughout the evening. He brought the varying players of the orchestra in careful alignment with the music and the singing. Both singer and conductor contributed carefully to create a musical dance. They both moved through the same landscape, perhaps a forest at twilight, or a morning with birds on the wing, neither of them with any affectation.



Part II

After Intermission, 10 orchestra members, including piano, flutes, violins, celli, and woodwinds surrounded Bullock who positioned herself on an angle as did Salonen, to offer the three Mallarmé songs. The contrasts among them were well-chosen. Each poem/song maintained its own terrain and gave us access to the world-view the poet introduced. Intensity of sound as well as meaning began to seem like an essential luxury.  For instance, “raspberries laughs,” or “bearded lapdogs,” unique images that offer fresh perspectives in a world that wants to introduce new and electric visions – these were the landscape they created. Audience reaction suggested they succeeded.

Bullock will collaborate with Salonen this upcoming year. Elsewhere Salonen has said that he does not create art solo. Rather he creates in the midst of other creating artists. Bullock will be one such collaborator.

The final piece, Ravel’s “Ma Mere l’lye / Mother Goose,” was a lovely conclusion, from the delightful diversity of instrumentation to the  precision and accuracy of the way Salonen harnessed it all. Harp and xylophone, bells and whistle, timpani and sonorous violins came together like stardust. It was sheer pleasure and beauty and it became a color-stitched tapestry, at once Hollywood and Shangri-La, with syncopated decrescendos swelling out of chromatic ascents, pentatonic scales emerging like fluid mountains out of nowhere and retreating into it right after. It was all fine as air and clean, exquisitely clean.

Salonen made sure that every phrase at once blended into the next and yet remained clear and precise. Nothing ran into anything other and blurred the pastel. This illustrated Salonen’s finesse and exactitude as he led the musicians. Even the pentatonic scales remained precise yet sultry.

He took Ravel’s musical palette from the nursery beyond – Choo choo train, French horns, piano – a kind of Britten’s own Young Person’s guide to the Orchestra, plus fairy tale. It wasn’t sheer dessert  in Davies’ Symphony Hall last night, but it was certainly pure delight.


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