138th assembly draws to close with Becker’s Sunday address


Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker will close the season Sunday. Photo by Megan Tan.

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

Two short months after Chautauqua President Tom Becker opened the season with the trio of gavel taps at the morning worship service, he will make the exact same gesture. But this service will carry a very different feeling.

As is custom, Becker will close the season with the three taps of the gavel at the final Sacred Song service of the season at 8 p.m. Sunday in the Amphitheater.

“All these things that people bring to this place are wrapped up in the last Sacred Song service,” said Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music. “And it’s part of the stages of grieving; we just have to go through this. We have to rip the Band-Aid off somehow. For many people, the ripping of the Band-Aid is when they hear the clank of the gavel tapping on the wood.”

So Jacobsen has planned the evening specifically to celebrate, commemorate and mourn the end of the season. Some years, Chautauquans have listened to the gavel taps covered in a blanket of humidity. Other years, they have acknowledged the end of the season wrapped in tablecloths and quilts to ward off the imminent fall chill. Either way, the umbrella feeling is the same mixture of sadness and excitement every year, Jacobsen said.

“I really do believe that we have been true to the spirit and the founding of this place,” Jacobsen said. “We have been able to let Chautauqua evolve … and we need to let go of some things and look forward to other things.”

This year, the congregation will sing “Thou Gracious God, Whose Mercy Lends,” written by Mack Wilberg, the music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which gave the first evening performance of this season. More than the choir’s connection with Chautauqua, one line of the piece resonates with Jacobsen, he said.

“The line that jumped out at me was ‘For all the blessings life has brought,’” Jacobsen said. “And that seems like Chautauqua to me.”

Jacobsen also chose the traditional folk song “Down to the River to Pray” because the idea of gathering at a body of water to celebrate and be together is reminiscent of gathering at Chautauqua Lake, under the Miller Bell Tower, as so many Chautauquans love to do, he said.

Another of Wilberg’s compositions, called “Come, Let Us Anew” is perfect for Chautauqua because of the recurring sound of a bell.

The magic of Chautauqua is not only for its permanent or summer-long residents, though, Jacobsen said. In 2002, an architect named Hugh Hardy visited Chautauqua to do some research on potential new buildings and said something that has stuck with Jacobsen ever since: “This (place) is like a great garden in a way that the charm of Chautauqua is undeniable.”

In 1944, a woman named Rebecca Richmond visited Chautauqua for a summer and kept a diary of her experiences. Near the end of the diary was a poem about leaving Chautauqua at the end of the season.

“‘Sometimes I wish I could love you less. … But I realize that I love you more because of what you have done to me,” Jacobsen said, reciting lines from the poem. “That says Chautauqua about as well as anybody I know. … It gets inside you and makes you desperate to come back here.”

Jacobsen will thread quotes and reactions of Chautauquans throughout the service but will also take the time to reflect on his own experiences.

The curse of most people who work at Chautauqua is that they rarely have a chance to relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor, Jacobsen said. But when the last notes of Largo on the organ echo across the grounds near the Amp, Jacobsen can finally relax and enjoy — at least long enough to listen to Becker’s closing speech — before his mind is racing again with thoughts of next summer.

“I really feel like my choirs could sing anything, and that’s a really heady feeling,” Jacobsen said. “I’ve had those (capable) choirs here for the last couple years, so my job is like gravy because I can hear things … and think, Chautauqua, that’s perfect, that’s just perfect.”

Although the Sacred Song service often is painful and happy all at once, Jacobsen said, it is important that the season end eventually.

“The cycle of life here is very important,” Jacobsen said. “(Otherwise) it wouldn’t have the magic that it does; it needs to be cyclical. It needs to start and then stop, and we need to be able to say goodbye to it so we can say hello to it again.”