At a certain point in life, you hit a point where you think you’ve encountered every kind of person there is — and there will always be certain kinds of people who stand out.
There’s one kind of person especially who seems to be able to project an almost incandescent love for their profession and for the people around them, and who possess a purity of character which elevates and uplifts entire communities.
For many Chautauquans, Jared Jacobsen was exactly this kind of person.
As Chautauqua Institution’s longtime organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, Jacobsen served as the operator and guardian of the Massey Memorial Organ located in the Amphitheater and the Tallman Tracker mechanical-action organ in the Hall of Christ, in addition to leading the Motet and Chautauqua Choirs.
On Aug. 27, 2019, Jacobsen died suddenly in a car crash, shortly after completing his 65th summer at Chautauqua. Two days prior, in his final Sacred Song Service of the 2019 season — his final “Largo” on the Massey — he joined Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill in declaring “Camp Meeting is Over,” before Hill’s closing Three Taps of the Gavel. Jacobsen was 70.
“Chautauqua was in his blood, it was in his DNA,” said the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion and senior pastor. “Much of what he did here was just because he wanted to do it, not because it was part of what he had been asked to do.”
At 8 p.m. EDT Sunday, June 28, on CHQ Assembly, Robinson and Joshua Stafford, Chautauqua’s interim organist, will present a virtual memorial concert for Jacobsen for the first Sacred Song Service of the 2020 season — currently the only such service scheduled for the summer.
“When I was a kid, I always dreamed that maybe someday I’d get to be the Chautauqua organist,” Stafford said. “This is not the way I imagined it happening. I feel a lot of pressure, but I feel like it’s very much the right thing to be able to continue on Jared’s legacy here.”
Stafford said the program for the concert will include pieces Jacobsen often played and pieces Stafford studied with him, from composers like J.S. Bach, George Gershwin and George Thalben-Ball.
“I met Jared when I was 10, when I first started playing the organ,” Stafford said. “We came to Chautauqua for a Wednesday concert, and I was totally blown away. Eventually, he became my organ teacher for the summer. I started to occasionally play for some of the Sunday organ tours here, and Jared would let me come and sit on the bench with him at the Sacred Song Services.”
The memorial concert is more than just music, according to Stafford — it’s about mending the wounds caused by loss.
“I hope that in being here, I can be helpful in the healing that needs to go on with this sudden and tragic loss,” he said. “Especially as somebody who’s been around Chautauqua for a long time and who was a protege of Jared’s.”
Robinson said that that’s exactly why Stafford’s work is so important.
“In terms of the concert, I think he will be very reminiscent of Jared,” Robinson said. “He’ll do verbal introductions to each of the pieces. Jared was always a great teacher, and he’d offer little-known facts before he’d play them. Josh will do that as well.”
Stafford said the last time he saw Jacobsen was at one of the first Sacred Song Services of the 2019 season, when Jacobsen asked Stafford to play George Frideric Handel’s postlude “Largo” — an aria from Xerxes that was one of Jacobsen’s favorites, as well as a mainstay of Sacred Song Services at Chautauqua since the first Massey program in 1907. Jacobsen on several occasions called “Largo” “the closest thing (at Chautauqua) that we have to a sacred relic.”
“It was a huge honor for anyone other than the Chautauqua organist to get to do that,” Stafford said. “I remember Jared came over and gave me a big hug at the end of it, and Gene Robinson came over, too, and said: ‘The two of you just make me weep.’ It was one of those moments that was special at the time, but I didn’t know going forward just how special it would be. That was the last day I saw Jared.”
Stafford will play recitals through CHQ Assembly every Wednesday on the Tallman Tracker Organ in the Hall of Christ to be broadcast following the 10:45 a.m. morning lectures, along with providing the music for the rest of the season’s ecumenical and interfaith worship services, at 10:45 a.m. EDT Sundays and 9:15 EDT weekdays, also on the Tallman.
“I hope he’d be proud,” Stafford said.