Garrison Keillor, of course, whose appearance last night with the New York Philharmonic turned Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall into an extension of the studio where he's hosted National Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion for almost four decades.
The format of the program, a benefit for the Philharmonic's pension fund, was quite intriguing and nothing like Prairie Home's country-tinged variety show. Along with conductor/pianist Rob Fisher, pianist Richard Dworsky and soprano Christine DiGiallonardo, Keillor loosely organized the program on the theme of music that has influenced his life.
That music includes hymns and with the perspective of a man who has turned 70, matters of the soul were also addressed, resulting in what amounted to a gently-led revival meeting in the heart of secular New York City.
Fisher and the orchestra opened the program with Emil von Reznicek's Overture to Donna Diana, a speedy work that was, in part, used as the theme to the old radio and TV shows featuring Sgt. Preston of the Yukon (and his "trusty dog," King).
Keillor then ambled out, dressed in suit, red bow tie and signature red sneakers. He has a stage presence like few others. Six feet, three inches tall, he seldom looks at the audience, in fact often turns his back, apparently addressing the orchestra. Possibly he is overcome by Lutheran shyness - the desire not to make a spectacle of oneself. He is not a graceful figure, at times resembling a man whose joints have been glued into one position.
Keillor noted that Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow will be retiring shortly and mused on the indignities of age - "people take your elbow." He recited seven sonnets, mostly on love, some on existential themes. (Addressing God - "When I die like other folks/I don't want to find out you're a hoax.") Who else would rhyme "Zhivago" with "Chicago" in an ode to Julie Christie?
The world of faith has always been a thread in Keillor's work and another poem lauded "Episcopalian/saving my love for you." Raised a member of the Plymouth Brethren in rural Minnesota, Keillor has outlined the foibles of Scandinavian and German Lutherans and currently attends an Episcopal church.
The orchestra interspersed various pieces, such as the Trepak from The Nutcracker and opened the second half with Stravinsky's Circus Polka.
Keillor continued his thoughts on age in an improvisatory section called "Over & Over & Ever Again." I was reminded that whenever I think I could hear the same ramblings from somebody's uncle in a living room, this extraordinary writer will create an image of surpassing beauty. And this was it: as you age, "the water that passes you by is full of music."
Proving the point, he and DiGiallonardo sang the hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," which contains the lyrics "Tune my heart to sing thy grace/Streams of mercy never ceasing/Call for songs of loudest praise." Keillor's surprisingly supple baritone and intelligent harmonizing melded beautifully with DiGiallonardo's crystalline tone.
Here's Mumford and Sons' version of this ardent, lovely song:
Keillor then expressed what I think is about the profoundest, simplest expression of a man engaging faith in the modern world that I've ever heard. He recalled that his mother, as she was dying, "believed she would walk into the arms of Jesus." Then he said: "I have believed it from time to time. Not right at this moment. But maybe tomorrow."
In the entire audience of New Yorkers primed to hear a humorist, in a world where the sophisticated view is to laugh at mention of religion, absolutely no one laughed.
Oh, there was plenty of humor as Keillor and the musicians ranged over a landscape that segued from "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" into Tchaikovsky's Serenade into the Erie Canal song into the Texaco jingle into the Coke jingle into Amazing Grace into the Oscar Meyer weiner jingle. (Although I have to say that having the New York Philharmonic play ad jingles is like having Shakespeare write your office memo.)
At 2 1/2 hours, the program could have been half an hour shorter, but it ended with "Come Thou Fount" again. Our hearts were in tune and the waters of forgiveness and blessing flowed over all.