Tuesday, December 04, 2007

From pagan Russia to the shores of Lake Wobegon.

In today's New York Times, music critic Bernard Holland has a write-up on a series of a concerts at Carnegie Hall by the Kirov Orchestra of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, directed by Valery Gergiev. I attended Saturday night's concert, during which the Kirov performed Act I of Mikhail Glinka's opera Ruslan and Lyudmila followed by Igor Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps, with a dance from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Snow Maiden offered as an encore. Written in different periods and reflecting very different musical styles, the three pieces seemed to have little in common beyond some shared subject matter; in one way or another, all deal with pre-Christian Russia. The Kirov played well throughout the concert, with highly capable assistance from the Mariinsky Theatre's resident chorus and selected soloists for Ruslan and Lyudmila. Gergiev lived up to his high reputation, conducting with great energy and bringing out the best in the orchestra. On another note, I must say that Carnegie Hall grows on me more and more with each visit. The cramped seats leave a lot to be desired, but the acoustics in the hall are perhaps the best I've encountered in my admittedly limited experience.

On the evening of the First Sunday in Advent I attended a public reading and book signing by Garrison Keillor at McNally Robinson, an independent bookstore in a section of Manhattan that I used to think was part of SoHo but which is really known as Nolita (North of Little Italy). Keillor's visit was intended to promote a new novel of his, but much of his comments during a relaxed forty-minute talk dealt more with the process of storytelling, the writer's vocation, and the various differences between New York and the Midwest. New York, Keillor said, is a place where straight-laced and taciturn Midwesterners go to be honest with one another; presumably Keillor knows this from experience, since he owns an apartment on the Upper West Side and spends a fair amount of time here. In response to a question from the audience, Keillor said that he likes to write about Lutherans because he isn't good at writing dialogue and Minnesota Lutheranism is a faith of inarticulation.

Keillor's Christian faith plays an intriguing and, it seems to me, a carefully-modulated role in his self-presentation. Keillor makes no secret of the fact that he is both a believer and a churchgoer, and his faith often comes up in interviews and in articles about his work. On Sunday evening, Keillor mentioned to the assembled audience that he had taught a Christian doctrine class earlier in the day at an Episcopal church in Manhattan (he went so far as to name the parish, though I won't do so here), talked about angels and grace, and even got the audience to sing along with him as he performed a Norwegian Christmas hymn. No one in the audience seemed overtly bothered by this, but since they were presumably fans of A Prairie Home Companion I suppose they knew what they were getting themselves into. However, as I stood in line with my Roman collar on waiting to have Keillor sign a book for me, a woman directly in front of me asked me whether I thought Keillor had actually taught Sunday school that morning. The woman's tone suggested a certain skepticism, as if she assumed Keillor's profession of religiosity was simply an act. I replied very simply that I had no reason to doubt that what Keillor had said was true.

The book signing line moved very slowly, mainly because Keillor wanted to chat briefly with each person and get a sense of who they were and where they came from before he signed their books. When it was my turn, I mentioned that I was a long-time listener of The Writer's Almanac and asked him to sign a copy of Good Poems for Hard Times, an anthology of verse read on the show. Given my clerical garb, Keillor wanted to know where I was "stationed," which led to an exchange regarding Fordham (he'd seen our Lincoln Center campus, but had never been to Rose Hill). As author events go, this one was pretty good. If Keillor does a reading in a bookstore near you, check it out. You'll be well-entertained, you'll be able to speak with Garrison Keillor face-to-face, and you won't spend nearly as much money as you would if you bought tickets for A Prairie Home Companion. AMDG.


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