Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Slices of Americana at Chautauqua II

Longtime readers of this blog know of my attachment to the Chautauqua Institution. I’ve vacationed in this lakeside, upstate New York cultural mecca at least a half dozen times over the past two decades, but each time I return, I learn something new and return mentally refreshed to my Big Apple job and New Jersey home.

There’s a good chance that, in the next week or so, I’ll touch on one of the things that went on up there over the last seven days. But a better way to convey the essence of the place might be the approach I took last year in a post called “Slices of Americana at Chautauqua”: use a larger-than-normal number of photos to convey a small community that epitomizes our national civilization, more often than not at its best.

One speaker last week, trying to summon the spirit of the place in a phone call to distant in-laws, said he described it as “a touch of Brigadoon with a bit of ancient Greece.” It’s not a bad description, actually: like the Lerner-Loewe musical, it springs to life periodically—in this case, once a year, in a nine-week summer program of public affairs, spirituality, the arts and recreation. Like the ancient Greeks, the center of life there is the public square, and the summer visitors abide by Socrates’ notion that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The “public square” here is its 5,000-seat amphitheater, where last week’s theme was “Water Matters.” My picture of the water sprite, taken in the walkway near the amphitheater, Bestor Plaza, takes its cue from the morning lecturers from National Geographic (co-sponsors of the week), as well as the sermons, continuing-education classes and even musical programs revolving around the theme (e.g., one performance of the Chautauqua Symphony encompassed Debussy’s La Mer, Ravel’s Une barque sur l'océan, and Leonard Bernstein’s symphonic suite based on his On the Waterfront soundtrack.)

One site on the grounds that combines several functions is Hurlbut Memorial United Methodist Church. The stained-glass image I’m posting symbolizes its spiritual significance. Yet the church’s sanctuary has also served as a classroom for the institution’s Special Studies program, and proceeds from daily lunches support the church’s mission and ministries.

Houses of worship, as varied as they are, represent only one form of architecture here. More striking are the homes, with many, if not most, dating back to the Victorian Era, and others clearly taking their stylistic cues from the age. A property-owners house tour in the middle of last week quickly sold out (I was fortunate to obtain a ticket for it).

Interest was so intense for this tour that long lines of visitors formed outside these homes, including the first one I visited, Sunnypoint, as seen in the third photo here. So intense was the heat and humidity that it didn’t surprise me to learn that one of the many elderly people taking the tour required medical attention.

What did surprise me—pleasantly so—were the sounds of Dixieland Jazz coming late that afternoon, several streets away from the Amphitheater. I hadn’t read anything in the list of daily events published in The Daily Chautauquan about any such musical performance. The sounds, I soon discovered, were emanating from an open space at Lincoln Park, part of a larger Chautauqua Property Owners Association celebration. Seven picnics were held that afternoon throughout the enclosed grounds.

While much of the open ground was occupied by individuals—grandparents, their children and grandchildren—conversing or lining up for food at the tables set up, another corner was set aside for a group of musicians. Not having seen a notice of their appearance, I judged this latter group to be a set of amateur—but enthusiastic and highly talented—jazz musicians. It struck me as the most Chautauquan of celebrations. I celebrate this jazz combo in another one of the pictures you see here.

Speaking of musicians…I have no idea if the youthful violinist in another photo here was part of the community’s vibrant musical education program. But visitors last week, as throughout most of the summer, would have had the opportunity to hear many different kinds of music, performed with varying degrees of proficiency.

Indeed, the final night provided a particularly vivid manifestation of this, in the form of a live taping of the National Public Radio program, “From the Top,” hosted by Christopher O’Riley. I confess that I was totally clueless about everything related to the show beforehand. (I was half-tempted to ask my friends at my inn if O’Riley happened to be the Fox News personality’s shy, retiring cousin from Ireland—you know: the black sheep of the family).

I was delighted to find that the show featured brilliant musicians ranging in age from 13 to 18. Someday, I’m convinced, when they win the fame they deserve, I’ll be able to say “I knew them back when.” In the meantime, I intend to listen to the show again—this time in October, when it’s set to broadcast in my area.

No comments: