Jared Jacobsen knew something was up.
“I would walk in the room and people would change the subject,” Jacobsen said. “I’ve seen the signs before.”
Last Sunday during morning worship, the Chautauqua Choir presented the world premiere of a new anthem in Jacobsen’s honor, the “Chautauqua Anthem.” Paul Moravec, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, crafted the piece.
The anthem was commissioned by members of the Motet Choir, who sing for the weekday morning worship services, in honor of Jacobsen’s 20th anniversary as organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music at Chautauqua Institution.
Gary Reeve came up with the idea and pulled together the committee consisting of Bob Bonstein, Barbara Hois, James Hubbard and Kathleen Milford, a friend of Jacobsen’s. They decided that this should be a project for the Motet Choir, although the Chautauqua Choir has commissioned pieces in the past for Jacobsen and former director Jack Grigsby.
Fran Roberts, whose husband, Paul Roberts, sings with the Motet and Chautauqua Choirs and has served as cantor at the Sunday morning worship services, was part of the process of looking for a composer. She is a conductor and pianist on Long Island and had recorded a couple of Moravec’s compositions. Roberts informed the group that Moravec had grown up in Buffalo and was familiar with Chautauqua.
When the committee gave its approval, Roberts reached out to Moravec about the commission. She said he responded immediately that he would be interested.
Roberts then asked Jacobsen what his favorite Scripture was, pretending that she was doing a sampler, and he responded Micah 6:8. Moravec based the piece off the Scripture, which reads, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Moravec had plenty of experience writing music, first by creating music for choirs and then as an art. Now, he has more than 150 pieces in his canon and earned a Pulitzer Prize for “Tempest Fantasy,” a chamber work written for piano, violin, cello and clarinet. Despite this acclaim, Moravec said he is always excited to create work for nonprofessionals because it makes him feel useful as a citizen.
Moravec said he was particularly enthusiastic about creating a piece for Chautauqua, which he remembers visiting occasionally as a kid and has fond memories of working at the Tally-Ho in the summer of 1975. He said he was excited to come back and show his wife a piece of his childhood.
The anthem itself evokes a comeback, Moravec said. It starts in a minor key, has a bridge and comes back in a bright major key. It’s as if it is answering the question posed in the verse.
“The trajectory of the piece … you might think of it as coming not from darkness, but from shadow to light. Sort of like the sun comes out,” Moravec said.
Reeve said he was very excited after the Chautauqua Choir’s initial performance of the anthem.
“I thought it was excellent,” Reeve said. “Everyone liked it and the harmonies were excellent. It was appropriate for the new Amphitheater, and it was nice to recognize Jared for the fabulous job he does.”
Jacobsen saw the score six weeks ago and liked it, but couldn’t be sure until he heard someone sing it. He said was amazed at how fast the choir learned it, but was terrified when he instructed the choir during practice in front of Moravec, who came to Chautauqua to see the piece performed. Moravec’s suggestions, though, made the piece come alive, Jacobsen said.
“I found out that Paul writes in the heat of the moment and if he is happy, he is happy with it,” Jacobsen said. “As I taught it to the choir, I told them things that he had never thought of. I teach that we don’t just chase notes, we sing with understanding.”
Over the weekend, Micah 6:8 was on everybody’s lips — the Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. used it to open Sunday’s worship service; it was invoked at the end of Vespers that same day; and Rabbi Sam Stahl had used it for the Torah reading on Saturday. It resonated with a lot of people, Jacobsen said, and as a song it feels even more powerful.
The name, “Chautauqua Anthem,” may limit the use of the piece, but it may spark enough interest for someone to research Chautauqua and find out what it is all about, Jacobsen said. He will cheerfully use it again in August.
“It is a wonderful stroke of my ego, but it’s humbling that these people that I see as a family would do this for me,” Jacobsen said. “They are the Rolls-Royce of choirs.”