Sacred Song Service celebrates old and new with ‘How Can I Keep from Singing?’

When Jared Jacobsen was first introduced to a gospel version of “How Can I Keep from Singing?,” he thought surely it would be “hokey.”

The high-schoolers in the La Jolla, California, choir that Jacobsen assistant-directs were assigned the piece to perform at a choral festival at Carnegie Hall in New York, and before hearing it, Jacobsen didn’t think the newer version could compare to the original from 1998.

“My heart went into my shoes,” said Jacobsen, Chautauqua Institution organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music.

After hearing the newer, jazzier version of the piece, however, Jacobsen changed his tune. His hesitance transformed into the conviction that he had to bring the work to Chautauqua.

“My school choir is kind of my laboratory for here, and ironically, my Chautauqua choir is kind of my laboratory for there,” he said.

The song served as the inspiration for the first Sacred Song Service of the Chautauqua Institution season. “How Can I Keep from Singing?” takes place Sunday at 8 p.m. in the Amphitheater.

The Chautauqua Choir will perform both the original version, which Jacobsen first discovered at a different choral festival, and the newer gospel version from 2003.

Both pieces feature almost exactly the same text; however, the newer version builds energy with a call-and-response between a soloist and the choir, whereas the older version is quieter, sophisticated and paints a picture with sound, Jacobsen said. The older version is gentle and calm, while “the gospel version is just rock-’em-sock-’em,” he said.

Each week the Sacred Song Services take on a different theme, and for the season’s first service, Jacobsen said, “There isn’t a much better way to launch it than a service that’s called ‘How Can I Keep from Singing?’ ”

Jacobsen also considered practice time when choosing the first week’s pieces.

Because not all of the Chautauqua Choir had yet arrived as of Thursday, he had to sacrifice that night’s practice, leaving the choir with only Friday and Saturday to rehearse.

“I have to do stuff that’s kind of sure-fire,” he said, explaining that the Chautauqua Choir had previously performed the original version of the song but not the gospel piece. “They sing stuff that they’ve never seen before better than any choir that I’ve ever worked with.”

Jacobsen will also recite a litany to commemorate the beginning of the Chautauqua season. Following with tradition, the hymn “Day Is Dying in the West” will open the service, and Jacobsen will close by playing “Largo” on the organ, a piece by George Frederick Handel, both of which have been constants at the Sacred Song Services for nearly a century.

“Largo always gets played somehow,” Jacobsen said. “Largo is maybe the closest thing we have here to a holy relic.”