Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Rev. Garrison's revival meeting

What tall white man from Minnesota could possibly keep 65 virtuoso musicians waiting as he rambled on about his high school girlfriend?

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.
Garrison Keillor

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.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Public Theater shines its house

Attending the Public Theater's Oct. 4 celebration of its newly renovated Astor Place home in lower Manhattan, I had to marvel "who woulda thought it if you were there at the beginning?"

Joseph Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival (which became the Public Theater) in 1954 on almost nothing and in the early years of the festival fought municipal power broker Robert Moses over whether he could offer Shakespeare for free in Central Park. (Papp won and the Public has been producing free Shakespeare ever since.)

Today, the $40 million revitalization of the 158-year-old Astor Library was cheered by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a host of cultural officials from a municipality that put up a heroic $28 million of the total cost. Bloomberg noted that in 1967, the city rented the dilapidated building to Papp for $1 per year and "we have been richly repaid."

In addition, Ford Foundation president Luis Ubinas not only represented a major funding organization, but told a poignant memory of visiting the place as a young man and encountering Papp, who told him he was too early for curtain time but to stick around because he was welcome.

In its 58 years of existence, the influence of the Public Theater can't be overestimated, from the idea that great theater belongs to everyone (the Public's mobile unit takes Shakespeare to New York neighborhoods and such institutions as prisons); to the development of plays and musicals that speak to the times (Hair, Sticks and Bones, The Normal Heart); to the nurturing of African-American, Asian, female playwrights; to pioneering the workshop model of play development (A Chorus Line).  

The Public Theater's newly-renovated lobby with artist Ben Rubin's "Shakespeare Machine" - a chandelier with lighted digital blades that will be programmed with quotes from the Bard.

The building now houses four theaters and the successful cabaret venue Joe's Pub. Remarkably, the theaters remained open during the four-year renovation. Last spring, when I saw Gatz (click HERE for that blog post), I walked on planks and stepped around construction equipment.

Ubinas recalled that the Public's current artistic director, Oskar Eustis, in fine Pappian spirit, started the ball rolling by saying, "I have this impossible-to-renovate old building. There are no [original architectural] plans. The building could fall in for all we know once we open it up."

What's resulted under the leadership of Ennead Architects is a spectacular re-thinking of the lobby and exterior. On the sidewalk, the main entrance now embraces the street with a glass canopy and wide granite steps and ramps. Historic preservation work restored the brick work and decoration on the facade.

The lobby gleams with a unified box office, "library" area and balcony on the mezzanine, restoration of historic moldings and a digital chandelier that will run quotes from Shakespeare in unique patterns. The Public has brought in some excellent chefs, starting with Joe's Pub, to create unique menus but it doesn't quite seem in the egalitarian spirit to serve $14 cocktails.

Work done in the theaters themselves involved heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades, addition of fire sprinklers and electrical upgrades. I was a little disappointed to see that the pathetically uncomfortable seats in the Newman Theater which I encountered at Gatz are apparently remaining in place.

But Eustis said the space is truly "open to the public," and you can walk into the lobby "go to that fountain and get a drink." The spirit of Papp was present as Eustis said "the greatest art belong to everybody and it is made greater if it belongs to everybody." The Public has always been founded on that idea of communication and community, that theater isn't just a one-way street.

Vanessa Redgrave reciting Shakespeare as Oskar Eustis looks on. 
In a heartfelt directorial stroke, performance was part of the celebration and Vanessa Redgrave, Mandy Patinkin, Liev Schreiber, playwrights David Henry Hwang and Suzan-Lori Parks, Bloomberg and Papp's widow Gail, among others, took turns reading appropriate excerpts from Shakespeare:

"I have lived to see inherited my very wishes and the buildings of my fancy." Coriolanus

"There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple." The Tempest

When we mean to build/We first survey the plot." Henry IV 1

And Eustis wrapped with "I can no other answer make but thanks/And thanks; and ever thanks. (Twelfth Night)

And to leave us with a rousing song, the young cast of the recent Broadway revival of Hair sang "Let the Sun Shine In" from the mezzanine. It was a fitting sendoff for another half century, at least.

The cast of Hair