Birthday Bashes Abound in the Big Apple: Garrison Keillor at 70 and Barbara Cook at 85

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Barbara Cook as Barbie Hallem in Alfred Hitchcock Presents 'A Little Sleep' (1957).

Barbara Cook as Barbie Hallem in Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ ‘A Little Sleep’ (1957).

October 16, 2012, Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
Mr. Keillor at 70
with the New York Phiharmonic
Rob Fisher – conductior
Christine DiGiallonardo – vocalist
Richard Dworsky – piano

October 18, 20012, Carnegie Hall
Barbara Cook 85th Birthday Concert
Ted Rosenthal and Lee Musiker – Music Director and Piano
with John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, Susan Graham, Sheldon Harnick, and Josh Groban


It isn’t often that two luminaries of the entertainment world publicly mark major milestones in the same week and city. Yet such was the case last week in New York: on Tuesday, Garrison Keillor reflected upon seven decades of life in a special appearance with the New York Philharmonic, and on Thursday, Barbara Cook celebrated her eighty-fifth birthday in Carnegie Hall, exactly one week in anticipation of the actual day.

Keillor, writer, humorist, storyteller and host of the legendary public radio program, “A Prairie Home Companion,” celebrated his 70th birthday in August of this year.  He described his evening with the New York Philharmonic as “a personal narrative of 70 years of music in a man’s head, featuring Brethren hymns, nonsense, rousers, show tunes, blues, ribaldry, Pomp and Circumstance, “My Girl,” as well as music by Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, Brian Wilson, Ligeti, and Jerry Garcia. Plus: “Hot Bananas Poetry and Piano Ping-Pong.” The program contained the same eclectic mix of sacred and profane, high- and low-brow, serious and silly, sentimental and irreverent that has come to be the hallmark of “A Prairie Home Companion,” the quintessential postmodern variety show.

Garrison Keillor.

Garrison Keillor.

The orchestra was in a festive “pops” mood, with a few of the male principal players in red bow-ties, and the occasional female member decked out in a colorful evening gown. The musicians were donating their services for the concert to benefit the pension fund of the New York Philharmonic, and their relaxed, collegial performance under the baton of musical theatre conductor Rob Fisher reflected this fact, presenting a sharp contrast to the impeccable, disciplined rigor of the subscription concerts from the previous week.

Following Reznicek’s rousing overture to “Donna Diana,” Keillor, bedecked in a red bow-tie and matching tennis shoes, came out on stage, greeting what he called “an orchestra of distinguished men and glamorous women.” He proceeded to commiserate with concertmaster Glenn Dicterow on the subject of his upcoming retirement: “70 is a great age, because it’s preceded by so much dread; then, when it comes, it’s nothing.”

Referring to Dicterow’s intention of retiring to LA, Keillor quipped about life after 70 in a city where, “when you don’t drive, life ends,” and where one spends one’s time in a senior center, forced to see people one has been avoiding successfully for decades. In his usual disarming, pseudo-self-deprecatory manner, he recited a limerick composed in honor of the occasion, contrasting the eminent violinist Dicterow with himself, a humble cornpicker from the Midwest who had just “picked a row.”

Keillor then set the stage for his “Seven Love Sonnets” by recalling the sonnets that he and his fellow students had to memorize in high school. He lamented the fact that, while the other students were assigned the romantic sonnets of Shakespeare, he was given “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,/I all alone beweep my outcast state.” Reflecting on the vagaries of memory as one ages, he noted that, having forgotten mathematics, physics, and all of the other subjects learned in school, this sonnet remained the solitary “monument in the desert” of his education.

Keillor’s mastery of programming is so refined and subtle that it may have escaped the notice of the public, but the “outcast” theme of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXIX proved to be the leitmotiv of the entire evening. Part of Keillor’s universal appeal is his identification with the Everyman in society, and his reminiscences of the last seven decades poignantly revealed his pervading sense of “not belonging,” without ever becoming maudlin.

“Seven Love Sonnets,” written by Keillor in collaboration with longtime colleagues Richard Dworsky and Andy Stein, deal with all the varieties of love: “platonic, erotic, and otherwise,” as the program stated. Beginning with an existential plea for God’s existence (“Lord, please be there”), the cycle of sonnets includes memories of Keillor’s high school sweetheart, a romantic lunch followed by a siesta, a crush on Julie Christie, the fantasy of a man waiting at a bus stop about a lovers’ tryst high above him in a Manhattan hotel, a rhapsody about 26 nubile women in bikinis poolside at the Hotel Biltmore, and a tender love song/lullaby: “may the angels smile upon you as you take your rest.” Dworsky’s incidental music to the poetry is alternately humorous and dramatic, punctuating and underscoring the panoply of emotions expressed in the verses.

“Hot Bananas” followed: “a game of poetry/piano/orchestra ping-pong.” In this case, orchestral and piano arrangements of judiciously chosen musical excerpts from Debussy, Joplin, Sousa, and other composers accompanied a seemingly random selection of poems by Keillor about myriad subjects: the travails of “post-parents” seeing their children graduate and leave home; Mozart’s extravagant living habits, which drove him into debt and forced him to compose (“Thank you, Mozart, for being so prolific/And, by the way, your hair looks terrific.”); the indiscretions of exposing the gluteal cleft; cicada courtship (“Cicada love does not involve poetry or song; ‘Was it good for you? Good! Well, so long!’”); sex (“I need you, I confess; let us coalesce”); the Episcopal church (a hilarious spoof of “Ain’t Misbehavin’”); smoking; human sperm; Billy the Kid; opera; “Dark Skies” (a spoof of “Blue Skies”); newlyweds (“a luminous night at the Broadway Hotel/ Then a lifetime of cold cereal.”); and death by electrocution (“In the eulogy, they spoke of love, honor, and ambition; But nobody said, ‘Why didn’t he call an electrician?’”).

Stravinsky’s “Circus Polka” opened the second half of the program, reinforcing the burlesque atmosphere with its sophisticated send-up of Schubert’s “Marche Militaire No.1.” Keillor then returned to the stage with Christine DiGiallonardo, a vocalist who often appears as a guest on “A Prairie Home Companion.” Voices melding in a mellifluous harmony, together they crooned their way through “Over & Over & Ever Again,” described in the program as “An improvisation with orchestra, singers, and piano of images and musical themes in the mind of a person of a certain age.” In other words, as Keillor prefaced the medley of songs and instrumental interludes (ranging from Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Chopin, Haydn and Beethoven to Jerry Garcia), “when history bunches up around you, the water that passes by you is full of music from long, long ago, when you were a child.” Ranging from profound to trivial, Keillor’s musical reminiscences began with hymns learned in childhood (“Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam,” “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”) and continued with old radio and television jingles (“Texaco,” “State Farm,” “Coca Cola,” “Oscar Mayer,” “Winston,” “Folgers,” “Chevrolet”) and popular songs spanning nearly a century (“Just A Song at Twilight,” “The Road to Mandalay,” “It’s You in the Sunrise,” “In the Attic of My Life,” “All My Love’s In Vain”). The songs were interspersed with Keillor’s reflections on significant moments of his life (witnessing a river baptism, first love, high school graduation, college, his mother’s recent death). Humor and pathos were so skillfully interwoven that one had the sense of laughing through tears. Keillor’s “outsider” sensibility came through in nearly every anecdote about his life, and the song that perhaps expressed this sentiment most poignantly was “Blind Man Stood in the Road and Cried,” which had several reprises throughout the narrative.

“Over & Over & Ever Again” came full circle, ending where it had begun, with a moving hymn and the childhood memory of being scolded by his father for laughing at a river baptism while the rest of the community was in tears. Hearing Keillor recount the tale, one was struck by the sense that he still smarts to this day from the injustice of the rebuke; the little boy had only laughed because, just at the most solemn moment of the baptism (which happened to be taking place exactly in the spot where a boy had recently drowned), a cow on the opposite riverbank decided suddenly to open its bowels. This anecdote says it all about Garrison Keillor: he has the great humorist’s innate gift of noticing the incongruity of the profane in the midst of the sacred, of comedy in the midst of tragedy. At 70, he remains boyishly mischievous and uncannily observant, and his universal appeal is as fresh and timeless as it ever was.

Timeless, too, was the impression that Barbara Cook conveyed to a packed house at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night. Her loyal and adoring fans welcomed her dramatic entrance with a rousing ovation. Glamorously attired in arresting blue and black with sparkling diamonds, the only indication of the former ingénue’s age was the cane with which she crossed the stage. Settling into a chair with an air of informality, Cook launched into “Let’s Fall in Love,” revealing a voice which remarkably has held its own, despite the passage of time.

The classic combination of flute/clarinet/saxophone, bass, drums, and piano that accompanied Ms. Cook was adequate for the occasion, but not remarkable in its performance.  The only disappointment of the evening was the banality of the instrumental arrangements, which more than occasionally bordered on kitsch and testified all too clearly to the indiscriminate trivialization of popular music in our time.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the concert was Cook’s adventuresome spirit in performing an enormous variety of genres, some even out of her comfort zone. Each number, whether a torch song, ballad, upbeat “list” song, patter song, or a tune traditionally sung, as she put it, by “jazzers” and “folk singers” (e.g., the soulful “House of the Rising Sun” and “Bye, Bye, Blackbird”) was handled not only with complete understanding and respect for both style and content, but also with the appropriate nuances that it required. Her versatility was remarkable, and she was able to move the audience from laughter to tears and back again with the same embodiment of character and mastery of expression that made her a legend on Broadway. The dramatic lighting effects, which bathed the stage in bright yellow for upbeat songs and dark blue for ballads, were superfluous for creating a sense of mood and atmosphere, as Cook could evoke it effortlessly and much more effectively simply with the colors of her voice.

In between musical numbers, the near-85-year-old showed herself still to be an ingénue at heart, giggling at a piano solo, making silly jokes, and telling anecdotes from her life with a childlike straightforwardness and sense of fun. After a soulful rendition of “Georgia On My Mind,” the Atlanta-born-and-raised Cook confessed with a laugh that it was “kind of a lie,” as she “couldn’t wait to get out of there.” She reveled in recounting various humorous titles of singer/songwriter Dan Hicks, such as “If my nose was running, I’d blow it all on you,” quipping that she decided not to sing the song after all because the lyrics simply ended, “…but it’s not.”

“I Got Rhythm,” in which Cook indulged in some scat singing (cleverly including a musical quote from “An American in Paris”) served as the vehicle to feature instrumental solos from each of the musicians and round out the set. Cook expressed her gratitude to them for their collaboration in the final line of the song, “Who could ask for anything more?” She then rose from her chair to acknowledge the resounding ovation of her ardent audience. When the hubbub subsided, she walked slowly downstage and sang a heartfelt version of “Imagine” without amplification, which functioned as both encore and benediction.

It would have been enough — the perfect ending to a perfect concert, but a number of local celebrities wanted to present a special birthday tribute. John Pizzarelli was the first surprise guest, reading a letter from Mayor Bloomberg, that dubbed Barbara Cook a “living New York landmark.” Pizzarelli was then joined by his wife, Jessica Molaskey, in an unremarkable vocal medley, which she introduced (more aptly than she knew) by saying, “Now I know the meaning of the phrase, ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous.’”

A much more acceptable musical offering came from Susan Graham, who swept onstage in a flowing orange robe and dramatically told the story of a little girl in the 60s in New Mexico who grew up in front of the hi-fi, listening to “The Music Man.” “Yours was the first beautiful voice I heard,” she confessed to Cook. She then gave a highly operatic, but nonetheless moving performance of “Till There Was You,” emphasizing the final line by pointing a finger at her role model. “When I was a little girl, I wanted to be you when I grew up, and I still do,” she admitted.

Barbara Cook was serenaded next by master lyricist and longtime friend, Sheldon Harnick, in a reprise of the song he wrote for her a year ago on the occasion of New York theatre’s tribute. In a clever reversal, he set his own lyrics, “I love you,” to the tune, “She Loves Me.” The near nonagenarian was followed by young idol Josh Groban, who gallantly sang to Cook that nothing would harm her, “Not While I’m Around.” A final chorus of “Happy Birthday” from performers and audience alike brought the evening to a close, and a deafening ovation accompanied the great singer offstage.

Postscript: Barbara Cook requested that all of her fans and supporters everywhere remember to “raise a glass” to her health this Thursday, the 25th, which is her actual 85th birthday.

About the author

Victoria Martino

Victoria Martino is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University and the University of California. A specialist in interdisciplinary studies, she has academic degrees in art history, literature and music. She has curated numerous international exhibitions, and has published over sixty catalogue essays and scholarly articles in more than six languages on artists and composers, including Wassily Kandinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, Sean Scully, Mimmo Paladino, John Baldessari, Josef Capek, and Zoran Music, among many others. An art, music, dance and theater critic, she has been a regular contributor to THE Magazine and various journals in Europe. Ms. Martino has participated in numerous international scholarly symposia and lectured widely. She has taught music, art history, and innovative humanities courses at universities in Australia and the United States. As a violin soloist and chamber musician, she has performed throughout Europe, Australia, Japan, and North America. A specialist in early and contemporary performance practice, Ms. Martino has a broad repertoire spanning six centuries. She is internationally known for her monographic performances (“marathons”) of the complete works for violin by various composers, including Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Ms. Martino has presented a number of interdisciplinary programs (lecture-concerts) in conjunction with exhibitions at many international institutions, including the Guggenheim Museums of New York, Bilbao, and Berlin, the National Art Gallery of Victoria (Australia), the National Art Gallery of Ontario (Canada), the National Art Gallery of Slovenia, the Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, the Albertina in Vienna, the J. Paul Getty Museum and MOCA Los Angeles, to name only a few. Since 2004, she has presented an annual subscription lecture-concert series on the interrelationship between music and art throughout history at the Athenaeum Music and Art Library in La Jolla, California.

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