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Busy Nathan Gunn on a ‘Carousel’

Chicago Sun-Times

By Laura Emerick

If opera star Nathan Gunn came up with his own version of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” it might go something like this:

Twelve drummers drumming behind his “Once Upon a Christmas” performance with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Eleven pipers piping during his recent segment on “The Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor at the Auditorium Theatre.

Ten lords a-leaping with joy over his mentoring work with the Chicago program After School Matters.

Nine ladies dancing across the stage during his upcoming turn as Billy Bigelow in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical “Carousel.”

Eight maids reminding him that less than eight weeks remain before his role debut as Raimbaud in Rossini’s “Le comte d’Ory” at the Metropolitan Opera.

Seven swans a-swimming downstream in the opera “Florencia en el Amanzonas” (in which his University of Illinois voice students participated).

Six — well, you get the idea. His true love, of course, is his wife and artistic partner, Julie Jordan Gunn.

And the partridge in a pear tree? This week, it would have to be his frequent stage collaborator, Mandy Patinkin. He and Gunn will present their Broadway meets opera program, “An Evening with Mandy Patinkin and Nathan Gunn,” in a benefit concert Dec. 1 at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston. All proceeds will go to the Over the Rainbow Association, a charity that assists in providing affordable, accessible and independent housing for the physically disabled.

Over the Rainbow is one of several family-focused charities supported by the Gunns, who have five children of their own. In a recent interview , the conversation kept returning to the importance of giving back to the community. That’s what drew them to Over the Rainbow, the Shriners Hospitals and After School Matters, a non-profit organization that gives Chicago teens opportunities to explore and develop their talents while gaining critical skills for higher education and eventual careers.

“The charities that resonate with me involve kids,” Gunn said. “Many charities” — mentioning a well-known cancer-related non-profit — “can count on lots of support from others. I’d like to do something else. And I do know what it’s like to raise five children.”

The Gunns, who are both faculty members at the U. of I. School of Music in Urbana, had just attended an After School Matters reception, at which they discussed educational and career op­portunities in music, and were still buzzing over the experience. “The kids’ enthusiasm is infectious,” he said. “It surprises them that I think of them as members of my artistic community, and [their reaction] makes me happy, too.”

Even more important, programs like After School Matters help shore up cur­­­­riculums that have been stripped of arts education. Because of funding cutbacks, these programs are “the often only way for kids to get exposure to the arts,” he said.

Though he was fortunate to receive musical training as a teenager, he didn’t grow up listening to classical music, instead preferring Led Zeppelin to “Les Huguenots.” “I needed to make money for gas,” he recalled, so his mom suggested he put his voice to work. His first lesson involved learning arias for the bird catcher Papageno in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and he was immediately hooked.

Papageno, of course, is now one of his signature roles, which he has performed at the Met, San Francisco Opera and the Ravinia Festival last August. “I’m going to keep singing it until they can’t wheel me out anymore,” he said.

Up next on his opera calendar, however, is the Met’s “Le comte d’Ory.” His rep ranges from Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” (1643) to Mark Adamo’s “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” (which will receive its world premiere next summer at San Francisco Opera), but a French bel canto rarity seems like a complete change of pace. “Tell me about it! When I signed the contract, I kept imagining Rambo [in the Stallone movies] instead of Raimbaud.”

Shortly after his Met run, he will sing opposite Broadway star Kelli O’Hara in “Carousel” with the New York Philharmonic for five performances Feb. 27 to March 2. “Billy in ‘Carousel’ is a role that I’ve been wanting to sing for many years, and to sing it for the first time with the New York Philharmonic is a dream come true.”

Gunn made a big splash last season in Lyric Opera’s “Show Boat,” the first of the company’s new musical theater initiatives, and many patrons had hoped he would return in this season’s “Oklahoma!” “I would love to do ‘Oklahoma!’ It’s just a matter of timing.”

Meanwhile, there will be plenty of musical theater chestnuts when Gunn and Patinkin perform at Pick-Staiger. Though they come from two seemingly opposite musical worlds, they make a natural pair onstage. “This is what we love to do. The point is to communicate,” Patinkin said before their 2011 gig at Ravinia. “Through our show, we hope you get the sense that good music is just good music.”

Expect to hear a holiday tune or two, too. Perhaps “Silent Night,” which Gunn sings on the just-released Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s “Once Upon a Christmas” CD and DVD. On whether he enjoys the sounds of the season, a smile that’s equal parts Snoopy and Charlie Brown breaks over his face: “I love Christmas music.” High on his holiday hit list: “The Christmas Waltz” and “White Christmas.”

Though he’s ready for the days to be merry and bright, he believes in celebrating “The 12 Days of Christmas” in moderation: “It’s got to be at least Thanksgiving before I break out the carols.”