Voices from World War II (1998)

Words & Music by Gene Scheer

Voices from World War II
Nathan Gunn's strong and sometimes steely baritone and a good measure of stage charisma and good looks have served him well in the opera house in recent seasons. Those are not bad attributes for a recitalist either, and on Tuesday evening he put them at the service of an interestingly varied program at the 92nd Street Y. For the occasion he was accompanied by his wife, Julie Jordan Gunn, whose playing was both supportive and communicative on its own, particularly in a set of colorful cabaret songs by William Bolcom and in Ned Rorem's ruminative "Early in the Morning." Mr. Gunn's program was an interesting balance of the sobering and the frivolous, and he proved equally at home in both, although he was at his most persuasive in weightier songs. He began in that territory with a rich-hued, moving account of Brahms's late settings of verses from Ecclesiastes and Corinthians, the "Four Serious Songs" (Op. 121). He quickly established his strengths in these, including a resounding but not overpowering low register, a more tightly wound top and completely clear diction. A group of Wolf songs continued in the spirit of the Brahms and, if anything, grew darker until the next to last selection, the ghoulish "Feuerreiter." But he ended the group on a lighter note, with "Abschied," a setting of the Mörike poem in which a visiting critic is sent hurtling down a flight of stairs. The painful and the light-spirited were juxtaposed more starkly in Gene Scheer's "Voices of World War II." In five concise movements Mr. Scheer describes a child's view of his elders' trepidation when war is declared; a sailor's gratitude to a German U-boat captain for allowing a crew to leave before sinking its ship; and a harrowing description of the landing on Omaha Beach, flanked by descriptions of a soldier's leave in Hollywood and London. Mr. Scheer's eclectic music evokes the period without becoming a pastiche, and Mr. Gunn found ways to convey the texts subtly but directly.
I cannot really believe that the song cycle “Voices from WWII” by American composer Gene Scheer (born 1958) is better than Robert Schumann’s Eichendorf Liederkries,” Op.39. But classic or not, Scheer had a stronger impact than Schumann in baritone Nathan Gunn’s song recital for the Vocal Arts Society on Tuesday evening at La Maison Francaise. Scheer’s five songs, based on the reminiscences of World War II veterans, are tragic, touching, mildly amusing and sometimes horrifying. They include memories of a solidier in the pivotal landing on Omaha Beach stumbling over the body of a friend;a sailor whose life ( with those of his comrades) was spared by a German submarine captain who let them row away in lifeboats before sinking their ship;an American having tea in a London home when the German bombers come over and the children are tucked under a specially reinforced kitchen table. Gunn who sang the world premiere of this cycle earlier this year, has been deeply affected by the songs, and his intense emotional identification is shared with the audience….He was born to sing American songs and the Scheer cycle was born to be sung by him.