Garrison Keillor on New York ‘Prairies’ and Singing with the New York Philharmonic
The man whose soothing voice and radio variety show is broadcast to 4 million listeners each week from Saint Paul, Minnesota, is getting a big birthday wish: a performance in New York City with the New York Philharmonic, led by acclaimed Broadway conductor, Rob Fisher. Famous for his storytelling on “A Prairie Home Companion” that gently pokes fun at everything from small-town America to romance on the subway, the writer and entertainer Garrison Keillor also holds classical music and Lutheran hymns close to his heart. On the occasion of turning 70, this chronicler of the fictional Lake Wobegon shares songs and memories at Avery Fisher Hall on Oct. 16.
You’re primarily known as a writer. How is it that you became so closely involved in presenting music?
GK: I’ve been in radio for almost 40 years and that’s a long time. I’ve been singing on the radio for most of that time, sort of learning how to sing in the course of it. I’ve finally gotten brave enough to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is to be on stage with an orchestra and invent things. I have always wanted to improvise with an orchestra on a stage and so — here I go. I will do it this once and never do it again, but its worth trying once because music that means a lot to me that I feel connected to includes some Tchaikovsky and a little Dvorak and the Beethoven symphonies. We’ll quote a bit of the Symphony ‘Pathetique’ and I want to hang a little ‘Love in Vain’ in blues onto the symphony.
The world premiere of “Over & Over & Ever Again,” is billed as an improvisation with the New York Philharmonic. Can you reveal any of the structure?
GK: The structure revolves around the pieces the orchestra is going to do and then I sort of will improvise around them. It’s simply an inventory of music that’s in my head at the age of 70. There’s this wonderful cacophony of songs and old pops songs and bits of commercials and classical tunes that have been enormously important to me for reasons that maybe have nothing to do with the music itself.
I might sing a little bit of ”Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing’ and ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ and “Oh Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” And also, ‘Beer, Beer for Anoka High, You Bring the Whiskey I’ll Bring the Rye’ — that was considered sort of adventurous back in the day and we sang limericks and nonsense songs. It’s inventory of a man’s brain and when you’ve lived a long life, everything is piled in there on top of everything else and you don’t have any regard for what’s more important or less important, aesthetics doesn’t matter.
Do you find that contemporary music is in that inventory as well, within the past five years or decade?
GK: No, there’s nothing in there from the past few years. My son, who used to be heavily into alternative rock, tells me that after he had two boys, suddenly contemporary music didn’t mean anything to him any more. His curiosity about new music just stopped and he found himself going way back to old blues and old country western music. Maybe it happens at a certain age or, maybe it happens when you’re no longer looking for love. I don’t know what happens… but the door is closed, there is no doubt about it.
What is like working with conductor Rob Fisher, whose regular gigs are working with Broadway stars like Patti LuPone, Kristin Chenoweth and Brian Stokes Mitchell?
GK: I’ve known Rob for many years. He conducted the Coffee Club Orchestra and when they asked me to do this, well truthfully, he was the first person I thought of to conduct. He’s a Broadway conductor and so he’s absolutely fearless. Nothing phases him.
Any favorite musical nights out in New York City over the years?
GK: Yes, lots of them. Sitting in Carnegie Hall in the first tier above the stage and seeing Daniel Barenboim do the Beethoven Piano Concerto and seeing James Levine conducting and hearing the Berlin Philharmonic do the Brahms symphony. I like the Bach series at Holy Trinity Church at 65th and Central Park West. I used to go down to jazz clubs in the village and I haven’t in a long time. I probably need to get out more!
Besides at Avery Fisher Hall, where else will you spend your time while in New York for this visit?
GK: My daughter will be with me. She’s 14 and I haven’t seen her for a few weeks — she’s in boarding school. So I’m going to do whatever a 14-year-old is interested in doing. She loves musicals, so that might be what she chooses… or she may just want to shop or go out to eat. A father is the hostage of a 14-year-old girl, so, she rules the roost.
New York has banned the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16-ounces, and there’s not many places left to smoke. Anything else you think New York could stand to regulate?
GK: (Laughs) I suppose they might think about regulating cell phone usage. It’s really crept into every part of public space in New York City. There are many people whose voices just automatically rise when they talk on the phone and they shout… people my age tend to do that. We’re all waiting for the bus and they’re talking about their prostate and it’s more than you really want to know. But I don’t see there is any way to regulate that at all and there’s certainly places where you can go in New York if quiet is what you want.
It’s odd to see people standing out in the street and smoking. I stopped about 30 years ago and I don’ t mind people smoking. But if you go into a bar, it seems to me that you have no right to object to smoke. Coffee shops, yes, bars, no! I think that smoke is part of the atmosphere of a bar. At the very least there ought to be bars that have a special dispensation for people who smoke. And bars where there are jazz players — I think there needs to be cigarette smoking. The two just seem to go together.
Your voice is famously calming. Have you ever thought of recording an announcement for the MTA subway system?
GK: (Laughs) I’m just so gratified that now, for the first time in my entire life going to New York, they have sort of brought the sound system around to where you can sort of understand the announcement. Up at my stop, at 86th and Central Park West, you can understand and it’s so gratifying. And the one that says, ‘An uptown train is at the next station’ — eventually they will put in clocks that they have in London that will give you the time until the next train. One can imagine that, but back in the late ’80s and ’90s, the PA system in the subway was a joke. It was this unintelligible sound of a human voice speaking some sort of language and it was loud and metallic. It was just part of the torture that they dealt out to their patrons. They have come a long, long way.
Well, I’ve got good news for you. On the numbered lines, such as the 4/5, you do get a time countdown now.
GK: You do?
Yes. But not on the lettered lines, which is your stop.
GK: So we should sell our apartment and move. I want to believe you… it is hard for me to, but I want to believe you that it’s true. I just, somehow, can’t imagine it.
The Town Hall is your ‘Prairie Home’ away from home, but if you could do a site-specific ‘Prairie Home Companion’ from any New York City landmark, corner or attraction, where would it be?
GK: I think one wonderful place would be the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. I think of it as a welcoming sort of place… people do go there to take naps, so maybe I shouldn’t be around where people are trying to sleep. I’d like to do something over in Brooklyn again…we did the show from Brooklyn a few times from the Majestic [now known as BAM Harvey Theater]. I’d like to do it from Brooklyn Heights and that park that looks out onto the river and over toward Manhattan. I’d like to do it from that gorgeous cemetery up in the Bronx. It’s up at the end of the 4/5 line. It’s a cemetery with those enormous private mausoleums where F.W. Woolworth and Jay Gould and the Straus family are buried, and Duke Ellington and Miles Davis are up there, and some people who went down in the Titantic.
It is a gorgeous old cemetery and very few people go there, but it would be the perfect place to put on ‘A Prairie Home Companion.’ The show was named for a cemetery. It was named for the Prairie Home Cemetery in Moorhead, Minnesota, and I really like that cemetery whose name I can not remember.
It might be called Woodlawn Cemetery.
GK: Woodlawn, exactly!
The only historic cemetery I spend time in is Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, which has a hill, so from there you can see the Statue of Liberty and the harbor and like you mentioned, mausoleums. I know that they host performances and arts events in the cemetery, too.
GK: I wonder if that is where Walt Whitman is buried [note: he’s in Camden, N.J.]. That would be a good reason to do a show there. You know, I think we have come up with something here!
It’s in the neighborhood of Sunset Park and it has a subway stop right at 25th street, which is the main entrance to the cemetery. Other than famous people being buried there, it’s known for the parrots. Someone must have released parrots at some time and they live at the entranceway. It’s really quite amazing in New York City to see free-range parrots.
GK: Well, you’ve almost talked me into it! A cemetery will be fine. There’s a whole audience waiting there for us.
This interview has been edited and condensed.