Sunday, March 17, 2013

Top Gunn

He's not bad with his shirt on, either.
Nathan Gunn.  

With a name like that, he could be James Bond's arch-rival.  

Or perhaps a long-lost cousin of Philip Marlowe.

But no, Nathan Gunn (at left) is actually a baritone - in fact, he's what is known today as a "barihunk."  For Gunn has left audiences shaken as well as stirred in revealing operatic roles (Billy Budd foremost among them, below) in which his pecs garnered almost as much attention as his pipes.

So I ventured to his Celebrity Series concert last weekend with but a single thought:

Would Nathan Gunn sound as good as he looks?

Well, haters, I'm afraid the answer is - yes, he does; Gunn boasts a baritone (as well as a bod) to die for - the voice is rich as chocolate, smooth as caramel,  and so resonant it seems to be coming out of a well rather than his (ahem) barrel chest. Given its weight, Gunn's sound is also surprisingly supple, and his range stretches into tenor territory sans any apparent strain. I've heard a handful of baritones with a shade more power; but in Jordan (or even Symphony) Hall, that hardly matters - and I can't think of anyone with more artful technique.

Of course it helps that his earnest eyes alone could melt your heart (with no crooning required); but honestly, it also helps that Gunn seems not at all vain, and perhaps even something of a regular guy. Damn it, he even has a shy smile, despite a stage charisma most performers would kill for; so as the old joke goes, it's hard to hold his body against him. What also cut against the bodice-ripper quotient was the presence onstage of his talented wife, pianist (and vocal coach) Julie Gunn, who was on hand to hold back the fans, as well as accompany her husband in a program that ranged from Schubert and Schumann all the way to "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (with pitstops in Barber, Ives, and Bolcom along the way).

Intermission divided the Germanic and American portions of the program, with Schubert and Schumann - including the full Dichterliebe ("The Poet's Love") - delivered first. Here, as expected, Gunn excelled at songs of yearning, from Schubert's haunting "Die Taubenpost" ("Pigeon Post") to a poignantly understated take on Schumann's "Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen" ("I hear the dear song sounding").  He likewise rose to the demands of other passions, giving Schubert's paean to inspiration, "Im Walde" ("In the Forest") a windswept rendering, while a sudden, surprising fury gripped the finale of the famous "Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bright" ("I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking").

Gunn as Britten's Billy Budd.
Still, even that outburst didn't quite limn the bitter twist at the bottom of "I bear no grudge . . .," and in general Gunn's take on the Dichterliebe was long on technique but low on psychological complexity; thus its closing coda, "Die alten, bösen Lieder" ("The old, angry songs") in which the poet's love and pain are buried together in one coffin, hinted at little of the cycle's emotional ambiguity.  And alas, while Julie Gunn gave poetic support at the piano to the slower songs, whenever Schubert or Schumann hit a gallop, her touch tended to thud.

But Mrs. Gunn was generally stronger in the program's second half, which after a set of Samuel Barber ballads tilted toward works (by Ives and Bolcom) that had one foot in the music hall or the revival tent.  Gunn himself at first seemed very much in his element with the Barber; in particular his rendering of "Sure on this Shining Night" (which after Adagio for Strings could be the most gorgeous phrase Barber ever penned) was absolutely ravishing, and made me realize this staple of sopranos and chorales the world over may be best served by a baritone.

Alas, Gunn then seemed hard-pressed to conjure the subtle irony that pervades Charles Ives (he's just not an ironic guy); but as I expected, he found his feet as soon as the composer turned more straightforwardly soulful, as in the tender ballad "An Old Flame."  And with the great William Bolcom, Gunn's natural forcefulness generally carried him home; he did surprisingly well by the wicked "Song of Black Max," and his campy take on "George," Bolcom's valentine to a doomed drag queen, felt like a bemused bow to certain members of his own fan club. The last song of the program proper, "Over the Piano," was likewise sweet, but might have been even more so if delivered directly to Mrs. Gunn; the true finish to the concert came with the sole encore, a stunning rendition of the Depression-era ditty "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?."  Here Gunn gave the banked anger that had flickered in earlier songs its full force, and the effect was galvanizing - and then, like many an old pro, he left the crowd longing for more.


  1. "Given its weight, Gunn's sound is also surprisingly supple..."

    I'm sure you mean color as opposed to weight. While he does have a rich timbre, there isn't very much that's weighty about his voice as there are plenty of tenors who could outsing him.

  2. No - I mean weight; or depth, if you'd prefer. And he's not a tenor.