John Frayne: Performance by Gunns left me speechless

The best way to sum up the wildly successful musical evening May 1 of baritone Nathan Gunn and pianist Julie Gunn, with friends Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano, and violinist Stefan Milenkovich is one simple word — wow!

Met Opera star and UI voice Professor Nathan Gunn has a relaxed and unstuffy stage presence, and with his pianist wife and friends, he has performed the astounding feat of unglueing the traditional formula of the vocal recital and turning it into a fluid, inventive series of encounters between different singers and instrumentalists. Gone is the old formula of "park and bark." This show moved!

Lasting close to two hours, with, by my count, 29 numbers, no intermission and no encores, the concert offered musical fare ranging from serious German lieder by Hugo Wolf to songs and duets from Stephen Sondheim musicals.

The innovative structure was revealed early on in the first group of songs by Antonin Dvorak. After Gunn sang the opening number, Leonard casually walked on stage and joined him in the famous song, usually called "Songs my mother taught me," and in the final Dvorak number, "Come and join the dancing," Leonard sang, Nathan Gunn danced and Milenkovich played the violin, and if memory serves me, the violinist did a few dance steps himself.

Both Julie and Nathan Gunn and Milenkovich are well-known to local audiences. But Isabel Leonard was the "new girl on the block," and she added that aura of the Metropolitan Opera to the mix. Of course, we are used to knowing that Nathan Gunn sings at the Met regularly. But Leonard is currently singing the role of Dorabella in Wolfgang Mozart's masterpiece "Cosi fan tutte," and she was at the Met the night before the Krannert concert. Leonard wowed the audience in Joaquin Valverde's old-time parlor song "Clavelitos," a number I associate with singers like Amelita Galli-Curci. Leonard also scored a triumph in "I am easily assimilated" from Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," with Gunn joining in singing and Milenkovich adding a few flourishes with his violin. Reaction by the near-capacity audience in the Foellinger Great Hall was lively all night, but this number got an especially big hand.

Milenkovich's brilliant level of virtuosity was apparent in the opening number of the concert, Camille Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," but the playing later on of Pablo de Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy" was the master stroke of the evening. As Milenkovich worked his dazzling way through Bizet's familiar melodies, Julie Gunn livened things up by slapping the piano top in rhythm with de Sarasate's musical line. But then, presto! When they came to the Act II "Gypsy Dance," the focus shifted seamlessly from Milenkovich's violin to the voice of Leonard. As a surprise, it worked perfectly! Then followed Gunn's spirited and intelligent interpretation of Bizet's famous "Toreador Song." Leonard then interjected a sexy echo to the world "L'amour," and Milenkovich added a parody "L'amour" on his violin.

This wonderfully successful evening offered so many memorable moments! At one point, Nathan Gunn came out into the hall with Milenkovich, and Gunn sang Mozart's "Serenade" from the opera "Don Giovanni" to a lady in the audience who was celebrating her birthday.

At the concert's end, during the standing ovation, Julie Gunn got a special swell of applause for her spirited and good-humored work at the piano. With Nathan and Julie Gunn taking over the newly renamed "Lyric Theater" at UI, we can only wonder about what inventive approaches to opera and other lyric forms await us.

'Love Games' review

On April 30, the night before the Gunn concert, I attended in the Colwell Playhouse the UI Opera Studio production of "Love Games," an adaptation of Artur Schnitzler's famous play "Reigen," ("Round Dances"), with music by Joseph Turrin and lyrics by Judy Spencer and Robert Morgan. Schnitzler's controversial play was written in 1897, privately printed in 1900, but not staged until 1920. The play's episodic plot follows a group of characters in a chain of, by my count, five seduction scenes. A sixth scene shows, wonder of wonders, a married couple preparing for bed.

Much of the performance time was given to spoken dialogue and almost all of the 10 characters also sang arias. Turrin's music strongly etched the differing character traits of the participants, but I would have asked for a more intense level of passionate utterance at the climax of the love scenes. Stage director Stephen Fiol artfully managed the transition from scene to scene, with a new set of props moved onto the darkened stage as musical interludes were playing. Rebecca Nettl-Fiol designed inventive round dances to begin and end the performance.

At the climactic moments of the love scenes, a screen with a Gustav Klimt love scene on it was wheeled on stage to offer privacy. From where I was sitting, I could see what was happening behind the scenes, or should I say, not happening?

Schnitzler's cynicism about love and sex is famous, and I was amused to hear this assortment of Viennese characters loudly proclaim their noble motives before getting on with the seductive business at hand. I must admit that after the fourth seduction I began to tire.

The charming musical accompaniments were played by Timothy Accurso, pianist, who also acted as music director, by Claire Happel, harp, and Barbara Hedlund, cello. The student actors/singers did a fine job in delivering a wide range of musical and dramatic characterizations. The Opera Studio directors are Dawn Harris and Ricardo Herrera.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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