For Schumann Song Cycle, Husband And Wife Duo Step In For Soprano Superstar

Baritone Nathan Gunn and his wife, pianist Julie Gunn, subbed in for soprano superstar Deborah Voigt Tuesday night on the Cliburn Concert Series at Bass Performance Hall, anchoring their performance with Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love).

This particular cycle offers plenty of challenges for both pianist and singer—and plenty of rewards for the attentive listener. But the principal obstacles offered here are not physical (indeed, a number of the songs are standard assignments for young students). No, the demands here are intellectual and emotional.

First, there’s the tension between the miniature and the monumental, with sixteen exquisitely succinct sketches that form, when properly linked, an arching unified whole. Gunn and Gunn carefully chose when to segue, without warning, from one song to another, and when to pause, and allow the structure to broaden.

Equally significant is the constantly shifting relationship between the piano and voice in this cycle. Although the singer always carries the words, there’s often an underlying trajectory that belongs principally to the piano. And, more often than not, the piano actually resolves musical strands and provides the final resolution within a given song.

Nathan Gunn, who will return to the area for Dallas Opera’s production Argento’s The Aspern Papers in April of 2013, produced a consistently warm, smooth vocal quality. Julie Gunn achieved the perfect level of pianistic assertion in a work that belongs as much to the pianist as to the singer.

The first half of the concert closed with a set of songs of Samuel Barber, including two of that composer’s most beloved works, “Sure on this Shining Night” and “I Hear an Army.” Besides being a skillful spinner of melodies, Barber was a composer of extraordinary literary sensitivity, who actually achieved a level of musical expression worthy of the two authors (James Agee and James Joyce) represented in these songs. And both pianist and singer revealed a deep understanding on all levels, with a particularly fine interplay in the imitative counterpoint of “Sure on this Shining Night.”

After intermission, the team presented a musical cabaret—an increasingly popular recital format in which operatic singers present popular and quasi-popular songs, usually with a bit of acting and a smattering of commentary. Although this part of the concert seemed to want a more intimate venue, there were some wonderful moments, including an authentic cowboy song (“Home on the Range”), a humorous pseudo-cowboy song (Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In”), and a set of William Bolcom’s bitter-sweet cabaret songs. To this listener, baritone Gunn seemed most at home in the Broadway romantic lead role, with two of Lancelot’s songs (“C’est moi” and “If Ever I Should Leave You”) from Frederick Loewe’s Camelot. Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” as an encore provided a nice counterweight to the rest of the cabaret section, and, subtly, a soft, pop-culture echo to the esoteric themes of longing and dream imagery of the Schumann cycle.

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