Shame-faced confession: I never heard "A Prairie Home Companion."
I missed all the enlightenment, all the intellectual stimulation, all the emotional uplift.
There the show was, those many years on the radio, and I paid no attention. I must have been too busy doing important things--things like timing hemidemisemiquavers or counting fouettes or reorganizing my socks drawer.
Now I feel silly and ashamed. I feel downright un-American.
I realized the extent of my ignorance and the depth of my loss on Monday night. That was when Garrison Keillor, Generalmusikdirektor of Lake Wobegon, made his belated, little-heralded and much-anticipated debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The occasion was one of those fancy pension-fund benefits. A long line of would-be ticket buyers clogged the box office, and the house was packed. Obviously every Angeleno except this one already was a dedicated aficionado.
Did I say Keillor made his debut with the Philharmonic? That's not quite accurate. He made his debut in front of the Philharmonic.
He didn't conduct the orchestra or play an instrument. Looking exceptionally dapper and only slightly professorial in black formal attire accented by crimson tie, matching stockings and cruddy loafers, he just did a little talking and a little singing. He was determinedly casual.
He talked about music, exuding quiet charm, subtle wit and--though he might not want to admit it--obvious sophistication. Don't let this cracker-barrel fellow fool you. He pretends to be a Midwestern innocent, a regular L'il Abner from Anoka, but he is very clever.
He speaks French. He pronounces foreign names impeccably. He understands the subjects of his mock mockery.
He can press his chin to his chest and sound just like a baritono profondo from the good old days at KFAC. He talks knowingly of Bach, and gets the guttural sound of the ch just right.
He does all this wisely, whimsically and with an air of wry bemusement.
"It is scary and gorgeous for a writer," he has revealed, "to stand up and sing with an orchestra. It's like going to a Catholic church if you're brought up fundamentalist."
With a delicate obbligato provided on the musical saw by David Weiss, principal oboist with the Philharmonic, Keillor opened the festivities wailing the "Tishomingo Blues." He wailed gently.
With a little help from Randall Davidson, his resident composer-arranger, and Philip Brunelle, his inspired conductor-accompanist, he warbled Carmen's Habanera, incorporating proper yuppie plugs for Powdermilk Biscuit Croissants. With unabashed feline grace and obvious affection, he sang two songs about cats.
He added unsuspected, reverential meaning to the "Goin' Home" refrain from Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, now dubbed the "Lake Wobegon Hymn":
Strange and pure,
I am home again.
There was more. So much more.
He sang--and almost danced--"Won't you come home, Bill Bailey" in the unoriginal Danish. He volunteered confessions of a "Teen Christian." He mustered a convoluted autobiographical tale regarding the dangers of hot-tubbing in the snows of Utah.
With appropriate keyboard illustrations quasi-improvised by the resourceful Brunelle, Keillor recited the litany of the music program at the Second United Methodist Church of Ottumwa, Iowa. That's the institution, you may not recall, that employed a parade of disturbing choirmasters with names like Wagner, Debussy, Stravinsky and Cage.
Best of all, and in keeping with the omni-pious leitmotif, Keillor offered "A Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra."
"To each person," the simple narrative began, "God gives some talent, such as writing, just to name one, and to many persons He has given musical talent, though not as many as think so."
There followed a bright, illustrated survey of musical instruments and their varying degrees of suitability for the meek.
"The violin," we learned, "is a problem for any Christian because it is a solo instrument, a virtuoso instrument, and we're not solo people. We believe in taking a back seat and being helpful. So Christians think about becoming second violinists. They're steady, humble, supportive. But who do they support? First violins."
Even more useful was the description of cellists.
"They are so sweet. They look like parents at a day-care center zipping up their children's snowsuits."
The august members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic listened attentively. When needed, they played con brio .
It was a lovely evening.