Review:Music @ St. Alban’s with Robin Bullock
By Perry Tannenbaum
Guitar, mandolin and their kindred are among the earliest classical instruments, so finding them up in Davidson at a Music @ St. Alban’s concert wasn’t exactly shocking, but when I sat down at the Episcopal Church and noticed that Robin Bullock’s instruments would be steel-stringed, I began to expect something unusual. There was also a network of electrical wires snaking across the platform, a small speaker lurking behind the chair where Bullock would sit, and the cittern that rounded out his arsenal – an oversized “octave” mandolin, he would later explain – was double-strung like a 12-string guitar.
Program booklets handed out as we entered St. Alban’s didn’t reinforce my faith that a classical concert was about to begin, since no musical selections were listed, but the personable Bullock allayed my misgivings with his opening remarks. Yes, a couple of these instruments would be stretched into the realm of J.S. Bach, but more often, they would be deployed in the more predictable confines of Celtic and Americana.
Virtuosity was certainly plentiful as Bullock launched into “Riding the Road,” a piece he has played with fellow guitarist Alex de Grassi. The admirable density in Bullock’s playing was not coupled with sufficient variety or beauty to sustain my interest. More to my liking was the second guitar selection, “Lord Inchiquin” by Turlough O’Carolan, an Irish composer who has become a longtime crusade for Bullock.
A contemporary of Bach’s, O’Carolan’s interest in music was a survival tool when he was blinded by smallpox at the age of 18. With the aid of a horse, a guide, and three years of musical training, he set out as a roving composer/harpist, and his tunes are often named for the patrons he found during his travels across Ireland. There were some dulcimer glints in Bullock’s adaptation for guitar – and obvious affection.
The most comical and risqué song of the concert was the only one that Bullock actually sang (in a folksy winsome style that certainly warranted an encore), and the only one he played on cittern, “The Fair Maid of Northumberland.” Its plucky heroine from England’s northernmost county devises a modest stratagem to avoid becoming a serial murderer-rapist’s seventh victim, clearly the primary spark for the audience’s enthusiastic response, but the two instrumental breaks that Bullock tossed into the middle and end of the song added to the heat – and of course, the suspense.
Switching back to guitar, Bullock made his first foray into Bach with “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” which he described as Bach’s “greatest hit.” Naturally, this hit has been done on guitar before, by Leo Kottke with steel strings and Christopher Parkening in his arrangement for classical nylon. Bullock made more of an attempt to point us toward the original Cantata 147 experience that Bach intended, once again impressing me with the sheer density of his rendition. The sound on steel strings was noticeably crisper than you would hear on my vinyl Parkening Plays Bach LP, and Bullock snuck in a wisp of rubato as the piece wound down, very gracefully done. The speaker Bullock hooked up to with his guitar was no bigger than eight-by-eight inches, smaller than the rig classical soloist Sharon Isbin tours with, so there was no degradation in the sound quality.
As a result, I was more eager to hear what Bullock would do with a Bach cello suite on mandolin, but first the guitarist reverted to folk mode with a coupling of “Shaker Hymn” and “Salutation,” a combo that appears on his Alone and Together CD from 2015. Around the corner from WDAV, the college FM station that touts itself as “your classical companion for relaxing,” this piece was right at home, slightly more engaging than elevator or station break music. Programmatically, we had been offered a palate cleanser before the main dish.
It was a little odd to see the wee mandolin chosen for the lordly Bach Cello Suite No. 1, part of an ongoing project which will culminate with Bullock transcribing – and subsequently recording – all six of the suites. Even as Bullock tuned the instrument, it sounded tinnier than the guitar, and when he launched into the opening Prelude movement, the tinny quality remained. If you knew this music through the classic cello recordings of Casals or Rostropovich, rather than the guitar transcriptions played by John Williams, the absence of legato would strike you as forcefully as the higher pitch of the mandolin. Knowing the Williams version, I also picked up on the whinier, sometimes twangy sound of the smaller instrument, though this still wasn’t bluegrass Bach.
In the livelier movements, Bullock took advantage of the mandolin’s graceful way with triplets and strummed chords; and in the slower middle movements, he discreetly added harmonics, underscoring the higher pitch rather than attempting to minimize it. In the concluding Gigue, Bullock showed us that he was not to be confined by the top speeds we associate with cello or guitar, making for a very invigorating finale that metabolized like a hummingbird while maintaining a driving 3/4 pulse.
The O’Carolan that followed, “Bishop John Hart,” was more satisfying than the first by the Irish bard – and more like Bach, with a sunniness that faintly resembled the previously heard “Jesu.” What followed is part of a project that is taking shape alongside the Bach cello initiative, a compilation of folk instrumentals with a blues tinge. The proffered pairing, “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Poor Boy a Long Ways from Home,” reached an intensity and funkiness from Bullock that we hadn’t heard before, at a speed even brisker than the Bach Gigue when the guitarist crossed over to the second tune.
There could be no more perfect moment for Bullock to turn to the Gavotte from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 for its calming effect, augmented in this church setting. Reaching in a more overtly spiritual direction, Bullock played what he called “the American folksong,” the traditional “Oh, Shenandoah,” though the memorable notes of the melody at “you rolling river” and “Across the wide Missouri” were all but submerged in this arrangement. Nonetheless, the sanctified tone was unmistakable and heartwarming.