Nathan Gunn recital bodes well for forthcoming Higdon opera

Nathan Gunn, baritone. Photo by Sharkey Photography.
Nathan Gunn, baritone. Photo by Sharkey Photography.
Posted: April 24, 2013

NEW YORK - Five years in the making, star baritone Nathan Gunn's high-concept, high-style recital Wednesday at Carnegie Hall's Zankel auditorium could be heard as a precursor of his leading role in Jennifer Higdon's forthcoming Civil War-era opera Cold Mountain, co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and the Santa Fe Opera.

The Anglo-American program concluded with Dooryard Bloom, a 25-minute Higdon work for baritone and orchestra that's among her best, heard here in the premiere of a new version replacing full orchestra with the Pacifica Quartet and pianist Julie Gunn. That more viable configuration should allow the piece to be more widely heard, which it certainly deserves.

Walt Whitman's Civil War elegy for Lincoln, "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd," took up three pages of the program - a huge amount of poetic real estate for a composer to sustain. It's a compositional tour de force but doesn't sound like one because the music feels poetically right, as if this is what the words were always waiting for.

But some pieces just don't reduce well. While the building blocks behind this one are more crystalized with smaller forces, you ultimately re-appeciate the original's rich orchestral coloring, and the details that are more than just atmosphere but that eloquently comment on the words. This new version will likely be a postscript to the original.

The Pacifica Quartet and his wife gave solid support to Gunn, who was in good vocal form with his coal-black lower range, clean, lyrical upper range, plus English diction that deftly employed regional accents to suit the milieu of the repertoire. (There's a reason he's director of Opera Philadelphia's American Repertoire Council). The voice alone was enough to reveal the poetic treasures of two songs by the little-known Ben Moore.

But was Gunn too comfortable onstage? He's such a theatrical animal that he only came 100 percent alive when a song gave him solid characters, such as the conversational interplay in George Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad. More raucous character sketches in Charles Ives songs like "Circus Band" (which also echoes the world of Cold Mountain) were dandy, but the Paul Bowles/Tennessee Williams song cycle Blue Mountain Ballads seemed more interesting for its authors than its content.

Gunn's innate theatricality allowed him to sustain the long emotional span of Dooryard Bloom. But there was a sameness to his interpretive choices that didn't help the decreased contour of the piece's reduced forces. He also seemed unready to enter the more unfiltered grief of the words.

Still, Higdon's opera (scheduled for 2015 in Santa Fe and 2016 in Philadelphia) is in good hands - give him a costume and a character and he'll be fine.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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