It was quite a coup for Wake Forest University’s Secrest Artist Series to get Nathan Gunn, arguably one of the finest American baritones appearing in the world’s greatest opera houses and concert halls. Besides the undisputed quality of his vocalism and acting, Gunn is well known for having frequently appeared bare-chested in opera productions. In an era of directors demanding singers actually look like their roles, this singer is a member of the select group known as “barihunks.” The baritone was very ably accompanied by pianist Julie Gunn who is also his wife. The Gunns are both faculty members at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Wait Chapel is too large a facility to be an ideal vocal recital venue but the enthusiastic audience would have exceeded Brendle Hall’s capacity.

The first half of Gunn’s recital featured the German repertoire, both operatic and lieder. Gunn commented it featured two of his favorite composers, Mozart in opera and Schubert in Art songs. Guileless Papageno, in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, is one of the most beloved characters in all of opera and it is a role the baritone has performed widely. Papageno’s two arias sandwiched the Schubert song selections. In “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen,” Gunn conveyed the Bird-Catcher’s naïve longing for a cuddly little wife. With immaculate diction and refined color and tone, the singer inhabited Papageno with minimal body language. This wasn’t just singing on a high level but a splendid example of vocal acting. This was even more the case in the character’s extended “suicide aria” that ended the concert. All the hesitations and nuanced phrasing were so dramatically telling. Julie Gunn’s accompaniment was superbly balanced and fully matched the singer’s skill. Her use of gossamer color conjured up the magical chimes used in the first aria and the golden flute of the second.

Gunn’s selection of six songs by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) mixed the well-known with some less known. “Frühlingsglaube” (“Spring Faith,” D.686) evoked nature in both its poetry and the rhythmic piano part. Playful early love was portrayed in “Das Rosenband” (“The Rosy Ribbon,” D.280). Wide-ranging vocal dynamics and full octave leaps and arpeggio sequences conjured up the storm in “Im Walde” (“In the Forest,” D. 708). Two songs treated love’s passing. The mournful “Romanza” (“Romance,” D.787) was originally an aria in Schubert’s incidental music for Rosamunde and has been a favorite recital choice since 1823. “Nachtviolen” (“Dame’s Violets,” D.752) revealed the composer’s ability to limn yearning with simple means. The last selection, “Die Taubenpost” (“Pigeon Post,” D.956) from the posthumous Schwanengesang cycle, is thought to have been the last song Schubert composed. The Gunns brought out the composer’s magical minting of vocal gold from drab, kitsch poetry.

The concert ended with an eclectic and splendid selection of some of the finest contemporary American song writers. Three fine songs by Benjamin Moore (b. 1960) were real finds. “In the Dark Pine-Wood” was a fine example of musical nature-painting. The text is by James Joyce from Chamber Music. Love at the end of life was the subject of “When You Are Old,” a setting of a text by William Butler Yeats. Another poem from Joyce’s Chamber Music, “The Heart that Flutters” compares a couple’s passion to a pair of wrens.

I first heard the gravelly voice of song writer Tom Waits on an episode of Fernwood 2 Night, a send up of vacuous late night talk TV shows that ran as a summer replacement in 1977. A voice further removed from the sounds beloved by opera lovers would be hard to imagine. However, Waits is a top-notch song smith. “The Briar and the Rose” compares a couple’s love to a tightly entwined rose bush and briar. I loved the suggestion of a waltz underlining the whimsical poetry of “Innocent When You Dream.”

Three strongly contrasted songs by the iconoclastic Charles Ives (1874-1954) followed. The “Circus Band” found the composer in a humorous mood, capturing a young boy’s excitement about the return of a circus band. The rhythms of the text and piano part suggested the sounds of a marching band. Ives is seldom accused of being “easy listening,” but the charming “Two Little Flowers” (and dedicated to them) is a setting of a text by his wife Harmony about their adopted daughter Edith and her friend Susanna. It is about as close to Schubert as the unlikely New Englander was able to go. “General Booth Enters Into Heaven,” about the founder of the Salvation Army, is the most ambitious and famous of Ives’ 200 songs. The refrain “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb” from the Army’s hymn “Fountain” is repeated throughout juxtaposed against repugnant images. Nathan and Julie Gunn’s traversal of this song was a triumph as they brought out Ives’ fervent text, pungent dissonances, uneasy harmonies, all underpinned with the suggestion of a big bass drumbeat.

The formal program ended with three traditional songs arranged by Julie Gunn, “Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger,” “Bound for the Promised Land,” and Walter Kittredge’s “Tenting Tonight.” These were charming and they exploited Nathan’s higher range more than the earlier songs.

This was one of the finest vocal recitals I have heard over the past thirty years, not least because Gunn is at the beginning of his prime years. His diction, intonation, and phrasing were superb throughout the evening. His refined palettes of both color and dynamics were breath-taking. The singer’s ability to “act” by vocal means alone was even more amazing. No exaggerated gestures or miming, just “the art that conceals art.” His poignant encore was very apt for this era of recession, down-sizing, and out-sourcing, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” by E. Y. Harburg.

I have long treasured his EMI Debut CD American Anthem: from Ragtime to Art Song and I look forward to his newest CD Just Before Sunrise which features a broad range of composers including Benjamin Moore and Tom Waits.