The 2000 season at Tanglewood got underway Saturday with the live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor and special guests Emanuel Ax, Norumbega Harmony, and the Berkshire Highlanders. It was a pretty good show, mostly – except for the parts that were brilliant.
It seems silly to use superlatives to describe a show that had as casual and relaxed a feel to it as this one did, but Keillor used some himself when he introduced Tanglewood and the Berkshires to his vast radio audience, so it’s OK for us to wax laudatory.
The selection of special guests was perfect and they all gave great performances. The show’s regulars, The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band, piano player Richard Dworsky, Tim Russell, Sue Scott, and sound effects master Tom Keith, all turned in their usual excellent performances.
A few highlights:
- Russell’s uncanny impersonation of President Clinton reciting Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” in response to Keillor’s query, “How does it feel to be leaving the White House?”
- Keith’s oral fireworks display to the accompaniment of “Stars and Stripes Forever” played by Ax and Dworsky;
- Keillor’s monologue, about one of the last of the dying breed of Norwegian bachelor farmers and his struggle to maintain his independence and dignity in the midst of a town full of Pumpkin Heads.
Berkshire Highlanders at Tanglewood
It was wonderful to see and hear The Berkshire Highlanders in the Shed. Their Greylock Tartan kilts are perfect representations of the subtly beautiful Berkshire hills, and their repertoire is unusually engaging, as indicated by the Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts they played on stage.
In addition to providing the show’s classical music interlude with “Estampes” by Claude Debussy, Emanuel Ax also made his acting debut, starring in an episode of the very funny radio drama, “Guy Noir: Radio Private Eye.” Ax was sharp in both roles.
Norumbega Harmony, one of New England’s largest and most active groups of Sacred Harp and shape-note singers, gave beautiful performances of the Shaker hymn “The Good Samaritan,” and a 19th centruy anthem, “Millennial Praise.”
Garrison Keillor’s Tanglewood connection
Garrison Keillor’s wife was a student at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute when she was sixteen, and their second date was at Tanglewood eight years ago, which he memorialized in a song that displayed his poetic acuity (e.g.: “I couldn’t see how a redneck’s gonna judge Seiji Qzawa.” Another bon mot was his rhyming admonition, “Music is a gift from God – please shut up, and at the end, applaud.”
Somehow it seems especially fitting that this Tanglewood season, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Aaron Copland, the quintessential American composer, was opened with A Prairie Home Companion, which celebrates everything that’s pretty good about America.