April 18, 2003

Gunns swoop in like superheroes; Mandel rejoices

Due to illness, soprano Susan Graham was unable to fulfill her engagement this past Friday night at Mandel Hall for one of a series of chamber music concerts sponsored by the University of Chicago Presents. Fortunately, baritone Nathan Gunn and his wife, pianist Julie Gunn, were able to fly in from New York on a day's notice to fill in for Graham. The Gunns performed a single piece, the 20-part song cycle, composed by Franz Schubert in 1823, called Die Schoene Muellerin (The Fair Maid of the Mill).

Nathan Gunn's voice is bold and strong-not muscled, although perhaps not perfectly free either. His low and middle registers are typical of a baritone, sufficiently resonant and expressive. It is often the upper registers of a baritone, which, though used rarely, can make or break the performer. The range of expression available to Gunn in these upper nether-regions is what makes him the world-class talent that he is.

He rarely employs his full voice in this upper range, and when he does so, as in the song "The Beloved Color," the sound is slightly pinched, and sometimes a few cents short of the dollar in terms of attaining the right pitch. On the other hand, his sotto voce falsetto is angelic and haunting, and is, wisely, the technique he most frequently employs in these high, expressive passages.

Perhaps unique to Gunn is the diversity of expression he commands in this upper range. Downshifting from a full-voiced forte to a half-voiced falsetto, he is capable of setting apart from the main body of song portions that call for particular pathos. The nuances are so rich and suggestive in these passages that one almost wishes he would perform a larger portion of his repertoire in this manner, as he did with "The Inquisitive One," the last three stanzas of which are sung almost entirely in the falsetto. The effect is like a crescendo, as Gunn's expert vocal mastery exquisitely rises from a plaintive, half-voiced whimper to a resolute forte.

The Fair Maid of the Mill presents the story of a wanderer who falls for a young maid, gets spurned, and eventually dies of a broken heart. In the first of these stages, Gunn's portrayal is apt, presenting the frivolity of the wanderer with his bold, almost bar-room type of self-assured, jocular bellowing. In contrast to this, the tag at the end of the fifth song is distinguished from all the preceding music by an eked out delivery in a pained falsetto, recounting that at the end of the evening, the fair maid of the mill bids all the men a good night. The use of the contrastive technique here is expert, saying what cannot be said by text or music alone.

It is only because Gunn's delivery is initially, or perhaps superficially, so convincing, that I express my dissatisfaction with individual aspects of his interpretation. The song "Impatience" has been misinterpreted, in my opinion. For although the protagonist behaves as a child, wanting to carve his beloved's name into the trunks of trees and shout it to the sky, his situation is no longer frivolous, as Gunn delivered it, but pathetic: his excitement is not joy but hysteria, an anxious mania induced by his "beloved's" refusal to acknowledge his attentions. Later in the song "Mine," the protagonist yells out, "Brook, cease your babbling, wheels stop your roaring!...Throughout the wood, . . . let one rhyme ring out today: The beloved maid of the mill is mine!" Gunn plays an elated young lover whose fears have evaporated and whose joy has been secured. Much more provocative, however, would have been to portray the lover not joyfully, but on the verge of bursting with joy, literally suffering from his elation, thrown into doubt by his belief in his own invincibility. And in "Withered Flowers," when the protagonist envisions the maid walking past his grave and lamenting her loss, and equating this with the end of winter and beginning of spring-truly this is a psychotic (or messianic) moment, not one for constriction and control of the vocal apparatus, but abandon.

Release is necessary in the end of this song-cycle. Here the brook sings a lullaby to the drowned protagonist, welcoming him into her arms in the way that the maid never did. And, unfortunately, Gunn delivers this song simply as a mother to a child, discounting the previous drama, as if there were no irony in death singing a peaceful and loving welcome.

It has been said of Schubert that his songs are poems about the poems that are his works' basic texts. Is it too much to ask of the performer that he himself be a poet? Or, more to the point, is it fair to expect of a singer that he also be an actor? Rarely do we ask that our musicians act (disregarding the case of opera, of course). Yet rarely are we convinced when the poetry is missing. The singer-poet's medium-in contrast to the poet-poet's and the composer-poet's-is neither text nor music, but the combination of the two as expressed by the vocal apparatus. In the case of the versatile Gunn one hopes that as the future unfolds he will continue to develop his inner musical poet.