Tag Archives: Robin Bullock

Bullock Brings Folk and Baroque to St. Alban’s

Review: Robin Bullock Plays Guitar and Mandolin

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Robin Bullock @ St. Alban's-13

Watching Robin Bullock with his guitars and mandolin at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson wasn’t exactly a first – we had reviewed a previous appearance. Nor can we feign surprise that Bullock’s program included selections from Turlough O’Carolan, J.S. Bach, and Stephen Foster. Bach and O’Carolan were fixtures in Bullock’s 2017 Music @ St. Alban’s concert – and that concert concluded with “Oh, Shenandoah,” which the guitarist called “the American folksong.” What made this concert so different, three years later, were the changes necessitated by COVID-19: the reduced size of the audience and the move to online streaming. Yet the similarities with the 2017 concert and Bullock’s relaxed personality were comforting, reminders that all is not lost and people can work, create, and recreate in the teeth of a resurgent pandemic.

Bullock has recorded an entire album of work by the blind 18th century Irish bard, so it was puzzling that he started off his 2020 concert with “Lord Inchiquin,” one of the two O’Carolan pieces he performed in 2017. Played on a Martin steel string guitar, the piece delivered more bite than might have been extracted from a harp, the instrument O’Carolan usually composed for, and it was heartening to hear applause ringing out from the small audience at St. Alban’s. Subsequent outbursts of applause sounded suspiciously identical, but critics tend toward cynicism. More and more, the pretense of live performance is being discarded in streaming presentations, so a fade-dissolve can now replace the tedium of watching a performer switch from one instrument to another, tuning up, and whatnot. We could rejoin the performance after instrument switches without any awkwardness, and Bullock was sufficiently at ease to deliver his intros while tuning. In fact, the last two songs were done in a single continuous take.

Double intros were necessary for both of Bullock’s next two selections. As a preamble to Foster’s “Oh, Susannah,” Bullock told us how folksinger Tom Paxton had advised him to compile an album of American guitar classics – now available at the guitarist’s website and titled, predictably enough, An American Guitar Album. “Susannah,” Bullock then informed us, was Foster’s first hit, published when the lad was 22. Lamentably, Bullock felt no compulsion to play the verses of this classic as Foster had written them, leaving me to wonder where he had misplaced Susannah’s buckwheat cake, the hill she came down, and the weather. Obviously, he was more enamored with the chorus, where he clung closer to the melody, but Bullock wasn’t exactly kind to the lyric. Each time he played the refrain, he added a syllable to “cry” and “Alabama.”

2020~Robin Bullock @ St. Alban's-8

Switching to mandolin in the blink of an edit, Bullock ventured beyond his CD compilation with the next O’Carolan piece he played, “Carolan’s Concerto,” enhancing the adventure by coupling the harp piece with a movement adapted from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, Bouree I and II. Bullock’s finger-picking here, fleet and sure, was more sparsely sprinkled with strums and grace notes, yielding a more discernable melody – and a more harp-like sound – than his previous foray on guitar into the Irishman’s work. The seamless transition into the C Major Cello Suite, easily detected by anyone familiar with the great recordings by Pablo Casals or Yo-Yo Ma, further shored up my confidence that he was not straying far from the original compositions.

If the mandolin didn’t sound quite right for the Cello Suite, Bullock was more discerning in his choices of instruments for the movements excerpted from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 1. Again, this was a piece that does not appear on any of the 21 downloads at Bullock’s online store. The are actually four pairs of movements in this B minor Partita, rooted in French dances, namely the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Bouree. Bullock chose the Sarabande and its complementary Double movement. The rich sound crisp articulation of the Martin guitar was key to Bullock’s most satisfying Bach performance on the languid Sarabande, and his Gibson mandolin meshed beautifully with the speedier Double. Obviously, Bullock wasn’t taking his inspiration from the 2017 account of the Double movement by Christian Tetzlaff, who hardly varies the tempos at all. More likely, Bullock took his cue from recordings by Midori or Gidon Kremer, who also hit the accelerator on the Double.

2020~Robin Bullock @ St. Alban's-4

Favoring one of his custom-made guitars, notable for their wolf paw print insignias on the marker spots along their necks, Bullock now turned to “Westlin Winds,” a tune associated with its Robert Burns lyric. The melody lurked closer to the surface than “Oh, Susannah,” though you couldn’t emerge from the concert knowing either melody unless you had heard it before. Yet the arrangement was quite lovely, soaring up to the treble for some unexpectedly ethereal interpolations after its folksy beginning, probably more woodsy than windy but vividly capturing the autumnal scent of Burns’s lyric.

Having primed us earlier with Foster’s first classic, Bullock left us with “Beautiful Dreamer,” said to be his valedictory song. In his intro, the guitarist spoke of the serenity and acceptance he found in both the melody and the lyric, hinting that it could be construed as a voice from beyond calling to the songwriter, who died at the age of 37, even younger than Burns. While the textual analysis that Bullock offered hits a road hazard when it runs into “queen of my song,” his oral reading of the lyric and his instrumental adoration of the melody were luminous and sublime. There was little ornament here, and the variant chords that Bullock imposed on the melody after his opening chorus added poignancy and a country music flavor – clarifying for me why the slightly cowboy-tinged recording I found on Spotify by Marty Robbins far outshone the more elaborate arrangement sung by Bing Crosby. Especially moving was the beginning of the final chorus, where the guitarist slowed down and hushed to a whisper, as if he might not be able to continue. We’ve had a painful amount of this kind of serenity over the past eight months, and perhaps in that moment, Bullock felt an inrush of solemnity amid the serene.


Bach and O’Carolan Mesh in a Genial Robin Bullock Recital

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.