When it comes to elegant, no one comes even close to baritone Nathan Gunn. Substituting for an ailing Deborah Voigt as part of Cliburn Concerts, Gunn alternately charmed and impressed a vocal-friendly audience at Bass Hall on Tuesday. There were lots of singers in the audience, as well as representatives of both the Dallas and Fort Worth opera companies.
Gunn possesses an absolutely gorgeous baritone voice. It is mellow, resonant and buttery; absolutely even from top to bottom, low key, and never forced by the intrusion of raw emotion. He looks great in a tux and his unassuming stage presence only adds to his "wow" factor. His pianist and wife, the equally talented and elegant Julie Gunn, just added to the picture of perfection. Those who like their music fraught with some raw emotion and peppered with passion, as Gunn is able to do in an operatic stage performance, were also impressed by his careful music-making—but maybe just a little disappointed.
The major piece of the program was Schumann's Dichterliebe Op. 48 song cycle, which dominated the first half. Experts argue incessantly on the meaning of these poems about love and the pain that this most basic of human emotions causes to its unsuspecting victims. Along with the program, the Cliburn people helpfully supplied some excellent translations of the texts by the composer Paul Hindemith. On the down side, the lights were dimmed to the point that this writer's eyes couldn't follow along.
Gunn's reading of these songs was conservative and evenly sung. Other interpreters have played on the emotions and sung these songs with a more operatic manner. Not so with Gunn. Here, the understated art song approach dominated. Even the most dramatic of the songs, such as Ich grolle nicht, was underplayed.
Ms. Gunn was absolutely terrific as a pianist partner. Many of these songs end with long piano "tags" which brings the songs to a conclusion, without the further ministrations of the singer. In these extended moments, she was eloquent every time, including the longest example at the end, which brings the cycle to its conclusion.
Four songs by Samuel Barber brought the first half to a finish.
The second half of the program consisted of selection from a cabaret show that Gunn put together some time ago. The selections were not printed in the program and frequently his terse remarks failed to identify what we was about to sing. While it is true that the music can speak for itself, some folks like to know what they are hearing.
Many were familiar, such as the unlikely-to-appear-on-a-recital selections "Home on the Range," "Don't Fence Me In, and "C'est Moi" from the musical Camelot. However, some songs by William Bolcom and others, which are not in the public ether, would have benefited from some introductory remarks. Some selections were old ballad standards, such as the depression-era tearjerker, now pathetically relevant again, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime."
There was little difference between Gunn's vocal style and approach to the songs in the cabaret section as to the Schumann. Some singers go all "pop" when singing cabaret, but this was not the case here. Perhaps it was the fact that he only sang ballads, some new and some old, and that no up-tempo numbers were included, that made this noticeable. The joint never jumped, so to speak.
In general, Gunn's diction was on the mushy side of comprehensible. His pronunciation was always correct, especially in the German, but the dark and mellow timbre of his voice made it difficult to get all of his words. At intermission, there was much complaining about the diction in the Barber songs and that didn't get any better in the cabaret section, where words were even more important.
As an encore, Gunn sang the perennial favorite "Over the Rainbow" in his same low key and understated fashion. This was a rainbow created by an early morning mist and a singer that was only daydreaming about distant lands. While not how the song was conceived, it was still a valid interpretation and beautifully, perhaps way too beautifully, sung.