Julia Bullock raises ‘History’s Persistent Voice’ at San Francisco Symphony

A multimedia performance of Black female history, experience and liberation

By Janos Gereben

Special to The Examiner

Julia Bullock, who is commissioning, curating, staging, directing and performing a show in Davies Hall on Tuesday, is an explosive multitasking talent, roaming the world, fighting for vital causes and receiving plaudits.

Naming Bullock the 2021 Artist of the Year, Musical America hailed her as “an agent of change,” recalling that her first public performance was singing a Black spiritual with her sister in front of her home church’s all-white congregation in a historically segregated suburb of St. Louis, where she was born 35 years ago.

Integrating her musical life with community activism, she has organized benefit concerts for war-affected children and adolescents in Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Uganda and St. Louis. She serves on the advisory board of Turn the Spotlight, which works to promote equity in the arts.

Bullock is among San Francisco Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s eight Collaborative Partners, a group of “visionary artists, thinkers and doers joining the orchestra to embark on a future of experimentation by collaborating on new ideas, breaking conventional rules and creating unique and powerful experiences.”

The multimedia performance on Tuesday is a concert of voices of “the enslaved and those who lived through generations of convict-leasing, sharecropping, Jim Crow and mass incarceration.”

With visual art installations designed by Hana S. Kim, “History’s Persistent Voice” features newly commissioned music by American women of color, including Jessie Montgomery, Carolyn Yarnell, Allison Loggins-Hull, Pamela Z and Tania León.

World premieres include Yarnell’s “I Come Up the Hard Way” and “ain’t my home,” Pamela Z’s “Quilt” and the West Coast premiere of León’s “Green Pastures.”

“I sought to find composers who could represent an incredible diversity of voices and of experience,” says Bullock, “a group of Black-identifying women who are tremendous, thoughtful musicians.

“Although cycles of targeted violence, oppression and demoralization are ongoing, I believe it’s clear for every artist featured on this program that various forms of human expression can facilitate some manifestation of liberation and freedom.”

Bullock has degrees from the Eastman School of Music, Bard College and the Juilliard School. She lives in Germany with her husband, Christian Reif, former resident conductor of the S.F. Symphony, who is conducting the orchestra during Tuesday’s concert.

The singer has many vital links with both the S.F. Symphony and the S.F. Opera. A decade ago, while still at Juilliard, she performed here with Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra. Shortly after that, she met composer John Adams, who has called her his “muse.”

Bullock sang the role of Dame Shirley in San Francisco Opera’s 2017 world premiere of Adams’ opera “Girls of the Golden West,” and later she starred as Kitty Oppenheimer in Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” at the Santa Fe Opera.

Bullock’s many acclaimed engagements include Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, the Dutch National Opera, the English National Opera, Spain’s Teatro Real and Russia’s Bolshoi Theater.

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