Monday, April 11, 2011

Ach Bächlein, liebes Bächlein

Twenty years ago I had the privilege of hearing Nathan Gunn and John Wustman perform Die Schöne Müllerin, and yesterday I got to hear them perform it again.

In 1991, when Wustman was 60 and Gunn was 20, Gunn's presentation of the song cycle was almost like a storyteller singing empathetically and engagingly about the experience of another person's imagination (the Miller). It was quite a difficult task for a 20-year-old student to accomplish, particularly after having learned the song cycle by the pianist who clearly has the "inside track" on what Schubert is all about. It was a journey of a young man with a marvelous voice and a tremendous imagination, navigating the eternally flowing stream of an old and wise brook. It was one of the most thrilling musical experiences of my life.

Yesterday's performance was a gift to the community--a free concert. Nathan Gunn studied at the University of Illinois, and after twenty years of a most spectacular career as an opera singer, he returned to his musical roots as a Lieder singer, something he became as a student of John Wustman (and of Schubert). I can think of few other singers, dead or alive, who are equally superb in opera and Lieder. The parallel I keep drawing to Nathan Gunn and John Wustman is that of Fritz Wunderlich and Hubert Giesen. I don't make this comparison lightly.

Die Schöne Müllerin was my first Schubert song cycle. It was the first piece of music I remember listening to on a recording. When I was around seven or eight I understood that the thing in our living room that looked something like this

was a record player. Nobody ever used it. (Yes. In a house of musicians.)

There was a record of Die Schöne Müllerin in one of the slots inside, and and I figured out how to play it (perhaps with help). I remember listening to "Das Wandern" and "Der Jäger" over and over again (until the machine, which was in bad shape, stopped working altogether). I had no idea what any of it meant, but I loved it. When I lived in Austria, I taped about half of a concert performance on the radio that was sung by Peter Schreier, and the piano part was played on the guitar. I used to listen to it again and again. It was pretty much the way I learned German. I was only 20 then, and I still didn't understand anything beyond the surface of the piece.

I have heard many Schöne Müllerins since hearing Nathan Gunn in '91. The recording of Fritz Wunderlich and Hubert Giesen is one of my favorites. I listened to it in anticipation of yesterday's concert. My expectations were high, and I took deep personal risks by putting Gunn and Wustman to the Wunderlich/Giesen test (I was deeply disappointed by a performance of the cycle I heard a few weeks ago by another highly-successful 40-year-old opera singer, and needed to put things into perspective).

I arrived at the hall an hour early (what's an hour when it's been twenty years?). There were other people there who had heard Gunn and Wustman perform Die Schöne Müllerin in 1991. In fact there were people who had heard Wustman and various students perform all 600 of Schubert's Lieder during his seven-year marathon in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Schubert's birth.

This was a Schöne Müllerin of experience. Nathan Gunn has lived his own life (he now has five children), but he has also lived the lives of some extremely complicated operatic characters, who all had complicated illusions and expectations about life and love. He was also reunited with his mentor in Schubert (kind of like swimming the the water where he learned to swim, if you will forgive my heavy-handed water analogy), who, when at the piano, seemed unchanged in 20 years. Wonders of nature, if allowed to be, only become more beautiful.

It was a Schöne Müllerin that Schubert and Müller never could have imagined. Wilhelm Müller died in 1827 at the age of 33, and Schubert died at the age of 31 in 1828. It was a profoundly moving hour, filled with profoundly-moving minutes, seconds, inflections, colors, articulations, diction, and Schubert. I was overcome with emotion after it was over, and in my post concert funk, just before turning down the wrong street, I saw a young (he is 20) pianist friend, and I encouraged him, since he hadn't known about the afternoon performance, to go to the performance of Die Winterreisse that Gunn and Wustman were doing in the evening (a concert I had to miss). Perhaps that performance will be central to his life. Who knows?

With everything going on in the world, with all the changes, revolutions, upheavals, expressions of greed, unfairness in government (which Schubert and Müller both understood far too well), struggles, and wars that have happened between 1828 and 2011, Schubert, Gunn, and Wustman teach us that it is really music that matters most of all.

Death of classical music? It won't happen as long as we have Schubert, who keeps giving to us and renewing, and filling us with hope. It won't happen as long as we have singers like Nathan Gunn, who understand and fill their responsibility to all of us. It doesn't matter whether my hope is real or imaginary, and one of the lessons of Die Schöne Müllerin is that there's no difference between hope that's "real" or hope that's "imaginary."

Dann, Blümlein alle,
Heraus, heraus!
Der Mai ist kommen
Der Winter ist aus.

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