In a gracious and unusual departure from the typical refreshments-only reception to honor volunteers, the board of the Mercer County chapter of the Interfaith Hospitality Network decided to pull out the stops for its volunteers with a concert open to the public on Sunday, January 30, at 3 p.m. at Princeton’s Nassau Presbyterian Church. IHN founder Karen Olson speaks and baritone Robert Bullington gives a song recital with pianist Arthur Wilson. On the program are works by Hugo Wolff and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
IHN, operating under an umbrella organization known as Family Promise, which has 114 networks in 33 states, uses the services of more than 95,000 volunteers and 3,500 congregations to help homeless families find permanent places to live and train them to turn their lives around. A unique feature of the program is providing homeless families with temporary housing for one week at a time in space provided by a religious congregation. The number of individuals looked after in any week is limited to 14; they come to know each other. At the end of the week the entire group moves to a different congregation. The arrangement keeps families focused on the future and supplies them with an extended support network. It breeds self-reliance and optimism.
Until families are ready to leave the program and settle into their own living quarters, volunteers see to their needs for shelter, food, transportation, and child care. Children are bused to their schools. Parents have an address and can receive telephone calls. A social worker helps participants find educational opportunities and jobs. Geared for families with children, IHN converts condescension about the homeless into collaboration.
Karen Olson, an advertising executive, started the IHN program in Summit in 1986, realizing that by using existing facilities the project would have no major start-up costs. Further savings come from using volunteers. Roughly 40 IHN volunteers are needed to provide services for a single family for a week. The IHN program achieves a 95 per cent success rate.
Eleven New Jersey counties have IHN networks, including Mercer County’s network, started in 1998. It has grown to include nine congregations offering temporary housing. Three dozen additional congregations provide volunteers and support. The Trenton headquarters for the Mercer County organization also serves as a transportation hub for families. A 12-member board manages the county network and its ingenious procedures for thinking outside the box.
At the January 30 concert Bullington sings a selection of works by Hugo Wolff, and Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ "Songs of Travel." In a telephone interview Bullington says, "The prevailing theme is independence. Maybe they resonate with the struggle of people who have to pull themselves up from hardships they are encountering. But it wasn’t devised for this gathering. I’m trying to offer a nice afternoon of music to the volunteers." Assistant vice president for information security at Lehman Brothers, the investment bank, Bullington spoke from his Jersey City office. Bullington’s wife, Pam Kelly, is vice president of the Mercer County IHN network.
The Bullington-Wilson collaboration dates from 1999. "When I first moved to New Jersey from Europe," says Bullington, "after about eight months of recovering from culture shock, I looked for collaborator. I had a list of five pianists. He was the first to answer."
The partnership was successful. The two meet weekly to rehearse. "We’ve performed over a dozen times," Bullington says. "We do a lot of Gorelli. She gives us first dibs on everything new she writes." Olga Gorelli is a Pennington-based composer and leader in New Jersey’s musical life; her compositions experiment with both words and music. "Arthur introduced me to Dalton Baldwin," Bullington continues. "I consider Dalton my mentor. He is one of the key people in the circle that I draw my inspiration from." Associated with Westminster Choir College of Rider University since 1984, Baldwin is an elegant accompanist of refined sensibilities who has worked with some of the world’s leading singers.
Bullington, 40, was born in New Orleans in 1964, the son of a civil engineer father and a primary school teacher mother, who now makes a career in real estate. He earned a bachelor of music degree from New Orleans’ Loyola College in 1987.
"I went to a liberal arts college that would let me have one major and take courses in another," Bullington says. His non-music studies turned him into an explorer of computing applications in the early days of information technology. "Loyola was a Jesuit college," Bullington says, "and one of the priests was the sponsor of an umbrella organization for social justice groups. I helped him organize a mailing list and build databases. We had luggable computers that weighed 30 pounds. They were considered portable at the time."
In 1987 Bullington attended the Phyllis Curtin seminar for singers at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony’s summer home. He continued his voice studies with Curtin, earning a master’s degree in music from Boston University in 1990. "I put myself through grad school doing odd IT jobs," he says.
"After my master’s degree I worked in IT, but I did enough singing to fill in a schedule C on my income tax return," Bullington says. He saved some money and in 1992 went to Austria, intending to stay six weeks, studying the language and culture. "I went over with enough to survive, but I needed more money to enjoy it thoroughly. Three weeks after arriving, I ended up working for the United Nations."
Bullington became responsible for network security systems in the Vienna-based UN International Atomic Energy Agency. "That’s where I honed my IT skills," he says. He remained in Vienna until 1999.
In August 2001, a week before joining Lehman Brothers, he married Pam Kelly, a primary school teacher, who is now a special education coordinator in the Pemberton Township school system, a 25-minute commute south of the couple’s home in Hamilton. The two met on a whitewater rafting trip. "Pam and I were the only two people in the raft who were smiling," he says. "The rest were cold and cranky."
Bullington is convinced that the interplay between information technology and music is a major determiner of who he is. "We’re all the sum of our experiences," he says. "Doing the job that I do is part of that sum of experiences. It may be subtle, but it’s nontrivial." He cites dealing with daily struggles, making judgment calls, and learning to deal with people at work and outside of business as "forming who I am."
Bullington leads a demanding life. At Lehman Brothers he is part of a group that watches the company’s information networks for signs of abuse, and works to ensure the best practices. "We watch for signs of trouble and try to head off problems before they happen." At home he practices evenings and weekends.
"Time’s short, so I use technology a lot," he says. "I use note recognition software to scan music into the computer and to transpose it. If the accompaniment is more complex than I can play on the piano, I use technology to play it. The technology is the rehearsal pianist who never gets tired. Why waste Arthur’s time?"
Bullington serves on the board of the Lotte Lehmann Foundation, which enlists technology in order to perpetuate Lehmann’s advocacy of the art song. His mentor, Dalton Baldwin, is honorary chairman of the board.
Bullington’s serious consideration of the recording process encompasses both music and technology. "The esthetic of recordings is upside down when it applies to the music world," he says. "The whole recording industry is built around the pop, jazz, and rock world. Musicians trained to perform without amplification have to perform in a totally dead space, with multiple microphones. What you record in a natural space is so much more interesting to listen to."
"The disconnect is when you use more than two mikes," Bullington says. "You’ve only got two ears. If it’s done right, all you need is two mikes to capture what you hear. Adding mikes loses information about the room and about the acoustics. When you add mikes, you muddy up the recording."
Bullington sees the results of such recordings at the Lotte Lehmann Foundation’s competition every two years. "The worst recordings happen when amateurs attempt to use multitrack equipment. The piano is coming from no place in particular; the voice is coming from no place in particular. They sound like they are in different rooms."
Would Bullington give up his day job? "I don’t know that I would," he says. "I think I’m a little too complicated for that. You go down a certain path, and it becomes part of who you are. I don’t know that I could remove this aspect of my life and remain who I am."
Thinking beyond his own identity, Bullington elevates the place of art in human life and quotes baritone Thomas Hampson. "The whole business of song and poetry is so incredibly important because today’s world does not invite you to think about what you are doing. It only invites you to think about how to do it. We’ve become so progressively goal-oriented that work is seen as the only serious part of life…But [we] are missing the fulfillment that comes from real reflection." Now there’s a thought that applies to musicians, the homeless, those who volunteer, the IT experts, and everybody in between.
Song Recital by Robert Bullington, baritone, and Arthur Wilson, piano. Sunday, January 30, 3 p.m., Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street. A volunteer appreciation event for volunteers of the Mercer County chapter of Interfaith Hospitality Network, which provides services for the homeless. Open to the public. 609-396-8849 or visit www.ihnmc.org