Marty’s final bow

It’s fitting that a man who has had such an outsized influence on Chautauqua will finish his tenure here directing such an outsized production. After 25 seasons helming the Institution’s performing and visual arts programming, Marty Merkley has decided to hang up his hat. But before he does, he will present us with a considerable parting gift — a second staging of his enormously ambitious rendition of Carmina Burana, beginning at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater. The Daily followed up with artistic leaders within Chautauqua’s music, dance and visual arts programs, the collaborators helping Marty go out with a bang.

Conductor Timothy Muffit: 

‘Remarkable vision and professionalism’

By Morgan Kinney | Staff Writer

It’s like clockwork: the Miller Bell Tower chimes to signal 8:15 p.m., and a bespectacled man emerges on-stage in the Amphitheater, approaches the microphone and says, “Good evening. My name is Marty Merkley, and I serve as vice president and director of programming for Chautauqua Institution.”

Invariably, the Amp fills with applause. Chautauquans occasionally shout his name or, this year, even wave tiny paper fans in the shape of panama hats emblazoned with “We heart Marty.”

Merkley is greeted with enthusiasm usually reserved for a rock star, and Carmina Burana guest conductor Timothy Muffitt said that’s entirely warranted.

“Chautauquans are very smart people,” Muffitt said. “They recognize the challenges that Marty faces in his work, and they recognize the remarkable vision and professionalism that he’s brought to his job.”

This is Muffitt’s 19th season as director of the Music School Festival Orchestra, which means he hasn’t experienced a single one without Merkley. In fact, Merkley was involved in Muffitt’s hiring. Saturday marks the second time this season Muffitt takes the podium to lead Carmina Burana, Chautauqua Institution’s third annual inter-arts collaboration. It will also be Merkley’s swan song before he retires from his longtime position in September.

While Merkley’s tenure saw drastic renovations and expansions to the Institution’s arts programs, Muffitt said the man has changed little, with the possible exception of one or two sartorial innovations.

“I’m not sure Marty was wearing those hats when I first met him,” he said.

The breadth of Merkley’s responsibilities, Muffitt said, is hard to grasp. Merkley is tasked with overseeing the growth and vitality of the myriad programs on the grounds, but he also must defend the interests of his constituents — in other words, Chautauquans. Merkley possesses the rare capability of navigating both details and big picture in order to advance the arts at Chautauqua without ruffling too many feathers, Muffitt said.

“An arts organization has a responsibility to foster artistic growth in the community,” he said. “Sometimes, that means a little bit of stretching and a little bit of moving toward the edge. I think Marty has shown a remarkable balance of maintaining that popular appeal but also allowing this organization to move forward.”

That balance manifests itself in Saturday’s production of Carmina Burana, a Chautauqua-sized interpretation that beefs up composer Carl Orff’s original score with every bit of sonic and visual firepower at Merkley’s disposal.

Muffitt leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, which is flanked by antiphonal brass choirs perched throughout the Amp. An ensemble of early-musicians, the brainchild of Merkley and early music specialist Wayne Hankin, appears throughout the program. Even the Massey Memorial Organ prefaces the original Carl Orff score, not to mention more than 200 choir members packing the gallery.

All told, about 500 performers file into the Amp for the production and, as director, Merkley is entrusted with the daunting task of guiding them toward a coherent vision.

Yet during the first Amp rehearsal, Merkley remained calm as the disparate elements coalesced into a uniform production. Dancers joked around, bagpipes squeaked, and overzealous onlookers applauded after the first few takes, but Merkley simply shouted “Quiet in the house,” and proceeded to iron out whatever hiccups arose without skipping a beat.

He’s been doing this for a while, and Muffitt said that makes all the difference.

“Experience is a very valuable asset in a production like this,” Muffitt said. “When it was time for the dress rehearsal, it was very clear what needed to be done.”

The production’s first run on July 25 went off without a hitch, in no small part due to Merkley’s guiding hand, Muffitt said. Saturday presents an opportunity to share it once more with an entirely new audience.

Next season, current Associate Director of Programming Deborah Sunya Moore assumes Merkley’s role at the Institution, in which she’ll carve out her own legacy. And while Merkley will no longer dart around the grounds in a golf cart, Muffitt said, his mark lingers within anyone who encountered his work.

“The people who leave here at the end of this season, as they have at the end of every season, come away enriched and fulfilled,” Muffitt said. “His legacy lives there — in the personal growth that Chautauquans have experienced in their time here.”

Organist Jared Jacobsen:

‘A wonderful ride, an extraordinary ride’

By Alexandra Greenwald | Staff Writer

Institution Organist Jared Jacobsen sees this production of Carmina Burana as the end of an era — not only for Chautauqua and for Marty Merkley, but for himself, as well.

“It’s with great mixed feelings I say goodbye to the Marty era,” he said. “Marty took a chance on me, brought me into the fold here and has supported me in everything that I’ve wanted to do here. I was the one putting on the sackcloth and ashes at the first of the line when I first heard that he was retiring. So I give him enormous respect for saying, ‘This is what I want to do and, when I turn 65, I want to try something new.’ But I can’t, at this moment, quite imagine life without Marty.”

When Merkley took his position as director of programming in 1991, the Massey Memorial Organ was in disrepair due to an unscrupulous curatorial staff, Jacobsen said. Thanks to Merkley’s intervention, the organ was restored and remained viable for future use.

“I have a picture of him taken when the organ was rededicated in 1993, of Marty and the organ curators, and we’re all looking like little babies,” Jacobsen said. “It was only 22 years ago, but it’s startling how much we’ve all changed. But the twinkle in his eye was there in that picture. That twinkle in his eye is still there.”

This restoration meant the Institution organist job still existed for Jacobsen to assume the title in 1996.

“[Merkley] stood up to what people were saying at the time about the way things had to be done here, and he just essentially said, ‘This is ridiculous, and we need to find a different path,’ ” Jacobsen said. “He’s the one that began to make the planets align so that, eventually, I could have the position here that I had wanted since I was a little boy. Marty had a great hand in orchestrating it, in ways that I’ll never know, but in ways I’ll always be grateful for.”

Jacobsen has similar feelings about Merkley’s final production for the Institution.

“There would be no Carmina Burana on this scale without Marty,” he said. “This is Marty’s full genius at work here to make this happen. This one will be impossible to top, and it probably shouldn’t be topped.”

The unmatched nature of the production is no surprise, Jacobsen said.

“Watching all of these elements coalesce was fantastic, and Marty’s particular skill set made it work,” he said. “Marty’s particular skill set has made it work here for 25 years. He’s an extraordinary person.”

For the time being, Jacobsen said he is trying to imagine work at the Institution without Merkley.

“In a couple years, there will be life without Marty, but not the same way it is now,” Jacobsen said. “It’s wonderful to be irreplaceable … and we’ll go in new directions and Chautauqua will work its magic on other people, but it’s been a wonderful ride, just an extraordinary ride. Whoever hired [Marty], that was the smartest thing they ever did, as far as I’m concerned.”

Chautauqua Dance’s Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux:

‘Unification and communication’

By Hayley Ross | Staff Writer

Charlotte Ballet Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux began his collaboration with Marty Merkley during the original Chautauqua production of Carmina Burana in 1992. The production incorporates dancers from the Charlotte Ballet with additional Chautauqua Festival dancers and Apprentice dancers from the Chautauqua Institution School of Dance for the larger ensemble sections of the performance.

While the steps in the dance segments of Carmina Burana will be the same as Week Four’s performance, the audience might recognize some new faces on stage. Casting has been changed to feature some of Charlotte Ballet’s newer dancers, including Ryo Suzuki and Tendo Santos.

“They have had time to learn some more parts, and they will be more involved this time,” Bonnefoux said.

Merkley has been extremely influential in all stages of the dance portions of Carmina Burana, and Bonnefoux said Merkley helped him understand the medieval atmosphere of the show and balance contemporary and classical ideas. Keeping true to that era and the way people related to each other during that time was very important to both Bonnefoux and Merkley, Bonnefoux said.

Merkley’s addition of the olio acts also provided more opportunities to involve younger Workshop II dance students in the production, particularly the sections “Girls in the Meadow,” and “Three Bags Full.”

“I really liked the idea because we can involve our school more,” Bonnefoux said.

He also said Merkley had an influence on the collaboration between the solo dance portions and the singers.

“The unification and communication is what Marty really brought,” Bonnefoux said. “What the singers are saying and how the dancers and singers should be related together.”

Merkley has always been supportive of the dance program as a whole, Bonnefoux said, both in his care for the artists and in his support when problems arise.

“I appreciate his ability, his talent, and his caring,” Bonnefoux said. “He is such a creative man, and you have to be creative to find solutions to these problems.”

The awareness of the needs of the artists on the grounds and the Chautauqua community is what sets Merkley apart from other directors in Bonnefoux’s mind.

“It is really because of Marty that so many people are still in Chautauqua, because of the care he has,” he said. “He is very aware of the needs of the artist. He cares not only about what kind of artist they are, but who they are as a person.”

Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution’s Don Kimes and Lois Jubeck:

‘An advocate and an ally’

By Abe Kenmore | Staff Writer

Don Kimes, artistic director of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution, remembers Marty Merkley as the director of programming who oversaw the growth of the visual arts. What began as a program on the Institution’s margins has since become a vital component of each season, he said.

“I give a lot of credit to Marty in his interest in making that happen and helping to elevate the presence of the visual arts,” Kimes said.

One major aspect of that has been the inter-arts collaboration that Merkley has organized.

“[Carmina Burana] was fabulous,” said Lois Jubeck, managing director of the visual arts. “It was beyond what any of us thought it would be. What they did was, I think, really worthy of the project. And it was collaboration in the best sense of the word, where everybody came together and did something.”

Among the people who came together for this project were Kimes, whose series of large abstract paintings, will be featured on the back of the stage again, and Christopher Ash, who designed and ran the projections on the ceiling.

Ash previously did the projections for Go West! last year and talked with Merkley at that time about doing Carmina Burana. Ash’s first thought when he looked over the project was using Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

“You can go around a single painting and see all the elements [of Carmina Burana],” he said.

The rest of the projections were built about this central theme, although some variation from Bosch’s chaotic paintings was needed for quieter, gentler moments in the music.

Ash worked closely with Merkley during the planning of the projections, but the artistic decisions were largely left to Ash.

“Marty gave me a lot of liberty, a lot of trust, to curate the entire piece,” Ash said.

Merkley’s faith in the arts — and the artists — holds true across disciplines.

“I think he’s gets it, and he’s respectful of the arts,” Jubeck said. “And that has been wonderful … it’s been really great to have him as an advocate and an ally.”

Merkley has also made an effort to bring the heads of the various art schools together outside of the inter-arts collaboration.

“I’ve always felt like we have these great people here and we never got to meet each other,” Kimes said. “We’d see each other at a fundraiser or something, but we never got time to talk to each other. And he’s made an effort to get us together at least once in the off-season.”

Kimes is hopeful this will have implications outside of the large performances each year in the Amphitheater.

“I think the big thing that will grow out of this down the road is that these activities that happen between creative people will not only be about bringing something to Chautauqua, but that original things will start to happen at Chautauqua that will start to emanate out,” he said.