Radio broadcast celebrates Mennonites at Goshen

Garrison Keillor shares national spotlight with students and audience

May 5, 2015 by and

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GOSHEN, Ind. — For those in the audience, the May 2 live performance of A Prairie Home Companion at Goshen College was a show they’ll never forget. But for the 27 students in the college’s Chamber Choir, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Garrison Keillor leads the audience in a hymn during the May 2 live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion at Goshen College. —  Brian Yoder Schlabach/Goshen College

Garrison Keillor leads the audience in a hymn during the May 2 live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion at Goshen College. — Brian Yoder Schlabach/Goshen College

At first, the choir simply expected to sing a few songs during the show. But over the course of the week leading up to the performance, Garrison Keillor, the show’s host, decided to incorporate them into more and more of the plans. By the time the program was in its final form, the Chamber Choir was as much of a presence on the stage as Keillor himself.

It was at dinner together after the first day of rehearsal — Keillor’s treat — that he began imagining creative ways to bring their voices into the show. Lyrics were re-written, soloists were tapped, and Keillor even incorporated the choir into his regular “Guy Noir” sketch as a Greek chorus, voicing Noir’s conscience.

The choir, under the direction of associate professor of music Scott Hochstetler, adapted flawlessly to the unpredictable twists and turns of the live show.

“It’s rather unusual that he involves a large group like that so intensely and so purposefully in so many skits and joke pieces,” Hochstetler said.

Sadie Gustafson-Zook, a junior from Goshen, joined Keillor on a version of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Keillor’s revised version, “I Wish You’d Keep from Singing,” had Gustafson-Zook imploring Keillor to be quiet. The song was a last-minute addition.

After her first time singing through the duet with Keillor during rehearsal, a sound technician gave her feedback.

“He said, ‘You sound lovely, but can you give more? More vibrato. . . . This is comedy, after all.’ That reminder that I was doing a comedy act with Garrison Keillor made me realize that I was becoming one of the performers that I had listened to as a child,” Gustafson-Zook said. “That passing comment was what made the experience feel real.”

On Saturday before the show started, the song was cut, but because they were running on time, Keillor added it back in the second half.

“It was an incredible experience, and I’m so proud of the students,” Hochstetler said. “They were poised, collected and had a blast on stage. I was blown away by the genius of Garrison Keillor and his ability to work a stage and work an audience.”

‘The right place’

In the fall of 2013, Keillor visited Goshen College for an evening of storytelling, but it was the audience singing hymns from memory in four-part harmony that nearly left the famed orator speechless.

Garrison Keillor: “I guess if you dress plainly, you’re allowed to sing ostentatiously.” — Brian Yoder Schlabach/Goshen College

Garrison Keillor: “I guess if you dress plainly, you’re allowed to sing ostentatiously.” — Brian Yoder Schlabach/Goshen College

“I think I maybe did the best show of my life Tuesday night, and all thanks to the audience, a thousand Mennonites and their neighbors in a small town in Indiana,” Keillor posted on his Facebook page. “Mennonites are quiet, peace-loving, kind-hearted people, salt of the earth. If I knew a church where people sang like that, I’d be there every Sunday, sitting right smack in the middle. Thank you, Goshen College.”

The singing was the incentive for bringing the whole show back to Goshen College last week.

Fifteen minutes before the show went live to roughly 4 million listeners, Keillor warmed up the audience with a few hymns, including “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” known affectionately as “606.”

“We have come to the right place. We found the right college to do the show we want to do,” Keillor said right before the red “On Air” sign lit up. “We have come across an extraordinary group of people.”

Early in the show, Keillor launched into a short history of Mennonites and Anabaptism, charming the audience by blending humor and history.

He prompted the “thousand-voice choir” in Sauder Concert Hall to sing hymns throughout the performance, including “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” “To God Be the Glory” and “How Great Thou Art.”

“Gorgeous, that was just absolutely gorgeous, you’re stunning me and the show has barely begun here,” he said after a hymn at the beginning of the show. “I guess if you dress plainly, you’re allowed to sing ostentatiously.”

‘You’re the Top’

During a song he wrote just for Mennonites, “You’re the Top,” Keillor sang: “You’re the top, you’re Anabaptists / you’re the wop, when the truth just slapped us / you’re pacifists who persist in seeking peace / you’re in the business of forgiveness, may your tribe increase.”

National Mandolin Champion and Goshen College student Ethan Setiawan of Middlebury was a special guest. He played several songs and performed “St. Anne’s Reel” with Richard Kriehn, the show’s string player.

“Seventeen years old, he’s just amazing,” Keillor said.

But it was the palpable connection with the students in the Chamber Choir that was the most profound part of the show.

“I was just blown away by his connection with the young people,” Hochstetler said. “When he took us out to dinner, he hardly ate, he spent the whole time talking to the students.”

After the show went off the air, Keillor led the audience in several more rounds of hymns, seemingly basking in the harmonies of the mostly Mennonite crowd.

“It was a moving, spiritual experience,” Hochstetler said. “It was a congregation, a huge congregation. You could tell he had such a connection with our community and the Mennonite faith.”

Audio and video from the show are online at prairiehome.org/shows/may-2-2015.


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