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Nathan Gunn brings 'unmistakable star power' to Christmas concerts

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 2:40 a.m. MDT

"The classical world of opera sometimes leans too heavily toward note-to-note perfection — opera singers try to make sure that we are doing is exactly what Mozart wanted, without varying from it," says Nathan Gunn. "It’s sacrosanct in that regard. It sometimes prohibits us from actually being able to put the point across of what we are singing about." Gunn is the guest soloist at the Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square concerts Dec. 15-18. (M. Sharkey)

URBANA, Ill. — When Nathan Gunn steps on stage as a soloist during the Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square concerts, it will not be his first performance with the choir. In 1999 Gunn sang Brahms’ “German Requiem” with the choir. But that highly acclaimed live recording was made in the choir's home, the Tabernacle on Temple Square, not the 21,000-seat LDS Conference Center.

“During the previous concerts, all of the guest artists have commented on how big the hall is and how intimate it feels, so I’m determined not to,” he says with a chuckle. “Maybe I’m going to tell the audience, ‘I want to take a picture of all of you. Can you guys on the right please move to the left…’

“I’m looking forward to standing between the choir and the orchestra, and having their sound just surround me. I think that’s going to be awesome.”

Nathan Gunn is the crown prince of the opera world. But the Grammy-winning baritone also takes on some of the great concert and song repertoire, and makes excursions into musical theater fare. Gunn is the guest soloist at the Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square concerts Dec. 15-18. (M. Sharkey) Nathan Gunn is the crown prince of the opera world. But the Grammy-winning baritone also takes on some of the great concert and song repertoire, and makes excursions into musical theater fare. Gunn is the guest soloist at the Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square concerts Dec. 15-18. (M. Sharkey)

“Awesome” is not a word you’d expect to hear from an opera singer, but Gunn is not a typical classical music soloist.

The Grammy-winning baritone is “a singer of unmistakable star power,” according to Opera News, with a reputation as an exciting and in-demand opera world artist. He is also a brilliant musical theater performer after a semi-staged performance of “Camelot” and a lead role in the first complete recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Allegro.”

His special concerts include the Sondheim Birthday Celebration recently released on DVD, on which he duets with Broadway’s Audra McDonald, a previous Christmas concert guest soloist with the choir. On his effortlessly enjoyable CD, “Just Before Sunrise,” Gunn sings contemporary songs by Sting, Billy Joel and John Bucchino.

When not on stage, he is an inspiring professor of voice at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He and his wife Julie, also an accomplished musician, are proud parents of five children. And the 6-foot former college athlete is one of the few classical music performers to be named to People magazine’s list of sexiest men alive.

In an interview from his university office, Gunn is generous, easygoing and immensely likeable. He recalls what is now an early resume credit: singing only three solo verses at Utah Festival Opera, while still a vocal student.

“I was the usher in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Trial by Jury,’ I only covered but never performed whatever the baritone role is in ‘Naughty Marietta’ and I was in the chorus of ‘La BohÈme,’ ” he remembers.

The 1993 summer work came just before winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions when his career exploded.

Gunn has had an unparalleled experience working with Mormon Tabernacle Choir director Dr. Mack Wilberg as they developed this year’s concert series.

“I do a lot of new pieces and I go through a lot of new music often,” he explains. “And I often need to send works back, saying this is the wrong range or this is too difficult or this is not good or blah-blah-blah. But I had to do none of that with Mack’s arrangements. I only suggested a couple of word changes in some of the translations.

“Mack is an easy person to get along with. He strikes a wonderful balance between being cordial, being friendly, being professional. It makes it easy to work with him. We were able to enjoy each other’s company, while still managing to iron out some details.”

Gunn comments on the reputation the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has acquired and says he has enjoyed viewing the PBS telecasts of choir’s Christmas performances.

“It always surprises me that the choir is all volunteer. Because they are so professional in the way they behave,” Gunn says. “Actually, that’s an insult. The choir is better than professional. They are super-professional.

“The choir is very disciplined in their work, but they really love what they do, too. That really goes a long way.”

Gunn recognizes the unique power that vocal music has to praise, worship and communicate that spoken words alone cannot convey.

“Every musical instrument that is made out there is trying to imitate what the human voice can do. Not only is voice an instrument that can convey emotion by these beautiful sounds that we can create, but our ears are tuned into it,” he explains. “When you hear a baby cry, you hear it from far away. It’s not because it’s really loud, but it’s because of that particular sound we understand really quickly.

“What we do when we sing is harness that.”

Julie Gunn, also a University of Illinois music professor, often accompanies her husband on piano for recitals, “but she will be in the audience, enjoying the concerts with as many of my children who will be able to travel with us. I think the oldest two have some important tests at the time.”

Seeing their father perform on stage is “normal,” he explains.

“Music is a big part of their life, but they are also a bit confused,” Gunn says. “Like, my youngest son, Nicholas, says, ‘Dad, I really like money, so I think I’ll become a banker. But I’ll play the violin to make money.’ So you can see they are a bit confused about which does which.”

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company