Although the American soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson has sung a wide range of repertory throughout her career, she has tended to favor and often champion modern, even avant-garde works, including some by Boulez, Wuorinen, Carter, Crumb, Sessions, Ligeti, Birtwistle and Henze. She is known for her perfect pitch, vocal accuracy at fast tempos and extraordinary three-octave range, qualities that have made her an easy choice by composers of difficult modern repertory.
Born in Bowdon, North Dakota on February 5, 1945, she began piano lessons at the age of three. She continued piano studies at Concordia College in Minnesota, already showing a predilection for twelve-tone music. She also took instruction there on organ, violin and voice. At the behest of Gunther Schuller she turned to vocal studies, first at Tanglewood, then at Syracuse University, where she studied with Helen Boatwright. She made her debut in 1966 in Berg's Lulu Suite, with Erich Leinsdorf (an early mentor) and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Thereafter she performed widely with major orchestras in America and Europe, though her first appearance on the operatic stage did not come until 1976 in Boston, when she sang Malinche in the world premiere of Sessions' Montezuma. She made her highly successful debut at the proms in London the following year, again in a modern work, this time Henze's The Raft of Medusa.
In 1984 Bryn-Julson joined the faculty at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, having already taught at the University of Maryland for thirteen years. 1987 was a year of triumphs for Bryn-Julson, with highly acclaimed appearances at Covent Garden in Stravinsky's The Nightingale and Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges. That same year she sang in Moscow with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra and then conducted a master class at the Moscow Conservatory, the first American ever to do so.
In 1995 Byrn-Julson won a Gramophone Award for her performance of Schoenberg's Erwartung. She received Grammy nominations in 1997 and 1998 for two acclaimed recordings, the first, Dallapicolla's Il Prigioniero, and the latter, Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben.
In 2000 she delivered one of her most memorable and critically hailed performances when she sang Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire at the Norton-Simon Museum Theater in Pasadena, California. Bryn-Julson continued making many highly successful appearances through 2005, the year she announced her retirement from singing. She continues to chair the voice department at Peabody.