Keillor hosts thoroughly entertaining show

  • Jul 2, 2008
[caption id="attachment_2982" align="alignright" width="220" caption="Maria Jette and Garrison Keillor at OBF 2008."][/caption]Wearing his trademark red sneakers and rising like a phoenix from the bowels of the orchestra, Garrison Keillor strode to the front of the Silva Concert Hall stage Monday evening and began to sing and talk his way into the hearts of a capacity audience. He was joined by the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus and Orchestra, the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy, and by fellow Minnesotans and regulars on his radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” conductor Phillip Brunelle and soprano Maria Jette. Music was everywhere, from accompaniments for Keillor’s familiar monologues about those stalwart characters of his home state to Bach and Handel choruses rewritten with Lutherans in mind. It was a full evening of entertainment, at one moment hilarious and racy, and at the next, nostalgic and sentimental. The printed program offered no guide to the evening, but the topic remained steady: Lutherans. The first portion of the program was filled with gentle swipes at these folks who populate the upper Midwest, endure harsh winters for the sake of character and take pride in their modesty. According to “The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra,” they also play only two instruments in the orchestra, the percussion because it demands patience as the players wait for their rare cues and the harp because it takes a saint to tune the strings. The orchestra, particularly the instrumental soloists, played this music superbly. Keillor’s delightful riff of 150 years of organists at a Lutheran church in St. Paul claimed that when composers such as Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky took over the post there were run out of town because they changed keys too often or were too loud. Only the sturdy Evelyn Peterson and her dull, predictable music survived. For this monologue, Phillip Brunelle provided a swirl of differing musical styles, all of which resolved into Evelyn Peterson’s foursquare music. Jette is always a lively addition to any musical event because she knows how to act as well as sing. At one time, she brought out a tray, as if a waitress, and joined Keillor in singing “My Mother Was a Lady.” The chorus and Jette also had short, appealing moments. In one instance, they sang “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” to the words of a recipe that any Midwesterner would recognize, a calorie-laden casserole topped with potato chips. Near the end of the program, they again join forces for a straightforward rendition of Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum.” Jette’s light soprano voice has lost some of its sheen over the years, but she has lost none of her appealing stage presence. If the first portion of the program contained Keillor’s typical sly comments, for a Lutheran, on sex, the second part slowly took on a nostalgic mood and at the end became a sentimental hymn to a lost America and its heartland religion. At first, the humorous mood continues when Jette and the chorus sang a rewritten text to Handel’s “Let the Bright Seraphim” followed by non-sequiturs such as “how do you circumcise a humpback whale” sung by the youth chorus to Handel’s “Let Their Celestial Concerts All Unite.” The turning point, however, came with Keillor’s monologue on “Aunt Eva,” a woman who never marries and provided him with the unconditional love his relatives could not muster. He remembers those wonderful moments with her listening to Tom Mix on the radio and eating sun-warmed tomatoes from her garden. Only later do we learn that she is slow and will always remain a child, while he will grow up and eventually leave. The choruses, prepared by Kathy Romey and Anton Armstrong, had a wonderful time singing less-than-serious music, but at the end, sentiment prevailed when Keillor asked the Youth Choral Academy to come to the front of the stage and join him in a camp song “Angels Watching Over Me.” The audience joined in on the numerous choruses, happy to be there. Marilyn Farewell reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.