Julia Bullock hit all the right notes in a stunning performance last night based on the black singer and performing artist Josephine Baker. Baker has been in Julia’s repertoire for some time, but last night she took it to a new emotional and theatrical level. She danced, she recited and she sang. And she did it honestly and with deep conviction.
The production- and it was a production – consisted of six players, all members of International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) directed by Peter Sellars who has worked with Julia extensively. The words represented a memoire or letters from Ms. Baker. They were written by Claudia Rankin, a poet. The songs were from Ms. Baker’s repertoire. The music in the background of the text was composed by Tyshawn Sorey who is also a magical percussionist. The setting was the Kaplan Room at Lincoln Center with the stars and distant lights of the city in the background. When the lights dimmed we were in the ultimate urban space.
The context was all about Baker and what she meant at the time – post WWI America and Paris – a black woman who was an international star beset by conflicts of being black, being a woman and being famous. Julia writes in an introduction: “For me, Josephine Baker is not merely an icon for women. She is not just an icon for black people. He is an icon for liberty.”
Julia made Josephine Bake alive; she made her an icon for today and for all times.
Her reading was punctuated with the lightest, suggestive and ethereal music performed by the ICE players. Watching Tyshawn Sorey move from instrument to instrument in his own ballet of piano, percussion and bells controlling the mood, adding to the drama, was a treat in itself. The music was just right, ever moving with the text, not interfering, but existing in its own realm with its own references of music from the black traditions of jazz and blues with an overlay of the modern.
The production was first performed in California this summer during the 2016 Ojai Music Festival.
Julia has exploded onto the performance world. In July she sang at the Hollywood
Bowl with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
We first noticed Julia when she was a student of Dawn Upshaw at Bard. We have been following ICE, one of the leading groups dedicated to performing music by live composers. This production was part of the Mostly Mozart Festival.