Ruth Powell to share stories of page-turning for Jacobsen in CWC talk



For many Chautauquans, the grieving of Jared Jacobsen’s passing — less than two days after the 2019 season ended and five months before the pandemic began — continues to this day.

The liveliness, intelligence, sentimentality and masterful skill of this world-class organist, coordinator of worship and sacred music, and director of the 50-voice Motet Choir and 150-voice Chautauqua Choir were so widely revered that Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec wrote “Chautauqua Anthem” in Jacobsen’s honor. The Chautauqua Choir presented its world premiere on July 16, 2017, in the Amphitheater during the morning worship service.

Jacobsen’s successor, Joshua Stafford, now holds the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and the title of director of sacred music. Stafford also directs the Motet and Chautauqua choirs.

“Everyone loved Jared,” said Ruth Powell, whom Jacobsen appointed as his page-turner for the Massey Memorial Organ following the retirement of Janet Miller.

At 9:15 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 3 on the porch and front lawn of the Chautauqua Women’s Club, Powell will share some funny and thoughtful insights about Jacobsen during her talk titled, “Tales from the Bench: Adventures in Page-Turning for Jared Jacobsen.” The rain date is Wednesday at the same time and place.

“(Jacobsen) had a wonderful last season, the organ wasn’t flooded, there was no (water) or fire to work around, it behaved itself, and he was almost giddy,” Powell said.

The 2018 season was preceded in early February by a leak caused by ice and snowmelt that damaged the organ console’s original ivory keys — which, to comply with federal law, were replaced by bleached calf bone in time for the opening of the season — and ended with a small fire in the console following morning worship service on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018.

“His last season was great,” Powell continued. “The (Motet) Choir was involved with doing The Christians with (Chautauqua Theater Company). … Without question, the most serendipitous thing that happened was that Josh — who had been his protégé — came and gave a recital. (Jared) let Josh play ‘Largo’ at the last Sacred Song Service. Afterwards they hugged, and hugged and hugged.”

Since 1907, “Largo” from George Frederick Handel’s opera Xerxes has been the high point of every Sunday evening Sacred Song Service in the Amp, just as “Holy, Holy, Holy” has been the favorite of each Sunday morning worship service.  

Powell added, “After that, Jared came to my apartment and I asked, ‘Is this the heir apparent?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I think so.’ ”  

To be selected as Jacobsen’s page-turner while he mastered the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ was an honor. As its primary guardian, he played — and Powell turned pages — for the weekday morning worship services, Sunday morning and evening services, weekly recitals and frequent solos with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Music School Festival Orchestra.

“I have a performance degree in organ and appreciated his music,” Powell said. “I thought I was a great page-turner. Boy, did I learn.”

A further honor was that Jacobsen gave a Massey Memorial Organ mini-concert in 2017, inspired by Powell. She had heard the piece “In Holberg’s Time,” which is one of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s piano suites, and wanted Jacobsen to introduce it to Chautauquans.

Jacobsen told Chautauquan Daily reporter Delaney Van Wey that he had been out of touch with Grieg, who developed a national musical identity for his home country of Norway, and may be one of history’s greatest piano composers. Thus he acted on Powell’s wish, transcribed piano compositions to the organ, and created the program for his July 25, 2017, concert honoring Grieg.

“I have nothing but joy about my memories of Jared,” Powell said. “He was so funny. … There was a lot of craziness going on up there.”

For Chautauquans who grew up with Jacobsen — he first came to Chautauqua to learn piano when he was only 5 years old — and who knew him before he became a celebrity, her memories are not particularly long. They are, however, colorful and meaningful.  

Powell said that Danville, Illinois, where she spent her childhood, “was a wonderful place to grow up, with the Midwest upbringing.” Having also been home to Dick and Jerry Van Dyke, Gene Hackman, Donald O’Connor and Bobby Short, Danville was not short on celebrities.

“We went to the same high school (as Dick and Jerry) and we heard about Dick being in all the plays,” she said. “He came to town in a parade. Dick was in the biggest sitcoms on TV. Gene and Bobby were there for a while, but not for all of their childhood.”

As a piano major at Illinois Wesleyan University, Powell hadn’t wanted to take a voice course, so instead she took organ. Once she began playing it, she said she didn’t want to do anything else, and by the end of her first year she had changed her major to organ performance. Marilyn Keiser had graduated eight years before her and was on her way to becoming a virtuoso concert organist, so she had someone to look up to.

“Eventually I got interested in the choir, got into it, and decided to go to graduate school in choir conducting; which I never did,” Powell said.

Meanwhile, she did a lot of page-turning in college and became good at it. 

“Page-turning is an art,” she said. “I was one of the go-to people for page-turning.”

Jared Jacobsen talks about the inner-workings of the Massey Memorial Organ at a Children’s Encounter on July 3, 2011. GREG FUNKA/DAILY FILE PHOTO

Upon graduation, Powell spent the summer at what was then called the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan.

“The best kids from all over the world came, and I was the manager of all of the high school choral organizations,” she said. “It’s kind of like what I do here. Working with conductors is kind of like being a personal assistant.”

Although she’d been accepted to a “really good choral conducting program,” as things happened, Powell ended up in Washington, D.C.

“I joined the huge — 150 people at least — symphonic chorus in D.C. that had a regular subscription program with the Kennedy Center and sang with the symphony,” she said. “The Choral Arts Society of Washington has all top musicians. Norman Scribner, the choir director, was one of the top influences in my life, musically and personally. There’s not a single person who would tell you anything different.”

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1971. For the opening, Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned Leonard Bernstein to perform the premiere of his MASS, and Scribner assembled a professional choir that she joined.

“Eventually when Bernstein came to town, he’d call (Scribner),” Powell said. “He wanted to put on a Haydn mass at the same time as the Nixon inaugural balls (on Jan. 20, 1973) because he was (against the Vietnam War). He taped our choir and did (“Mass in Time of War”) in the National Cathedral. The next day we went back and they recorded it.”

Powell continued:  “To be 23 in D.C. — I couldn’t even comprehend that I’m getting to do this. That was truly the mountain top.”

Earning a master’s degree in education instead of conducting, she accepted a teaching position in middle school music in the Fairfax County, Virginia, public schools.

“I taught middle school, and eventually I got a job teaching elementary school,” Powell said. “After that, there was no singing voice left. I taught 10 30-minute classes a day without a break. There might be four fourth-grade classes in a row. I had to sing on top of their instruments. It was brutal on my voice because I abused it so badly. So I had to drop out of that beautiful choir.”

For her last five years in education, Powell said she was drafted to teach pregnant girls.

“Probably starting in 2002, I got back in the choir and put in another five or six years,” she said. “(Scribner) was there, and I decided to stay in the choir (as long as) he was still there. I retired to the Blue Ridge Mountains by Charlottesville, Virginia, and commuted three hours twice weekly to D.C.”

After Scribner retired, Powell moved to Florida. In 2018, she joined the Choral Artists of Sarasota, a 35-member professional vocal ensemble. Joseph Holt, the choral’s artistic director, had for 15 years served as the associate music director for The Choral Arts Society of Washington.

“I didn’t start coming to Chautauqua until 14 years ago or thereabouts,” Powell said. “Then I tried to spend longer and longer here. I went back and forth, and was in the Motet Choir.”

During this time she has also taught numerous classes on a variety of musical topics through Chautauqua Institution’s Special Studies Program.

She said she’s a person who believes in deciding what you want, and what you have to give up in order to get it. Powell did the latter, enabling her to be at Chautauqua each summer for the full season.

“When I first joined the choir, I was intimidated by (Jacobsen),” Powell said. “He was an icon. Eventually I became one of the three librarians of the Motet Choir. He was very slow to welcome someone into his inner circle and it didn’t phase me a bit. … But once I became a librarian and started renting a house, (I would see him walking his dog and) he would sit and talk.”

Eventually, she said, they became close friends. Even then, turning pages for Jared was one of the scariest adventures of her life. Now, she is “beyond thrilled to be working with Josh,” Powell said. “The legacy is absolutely top notch, and I think Jared would be really pleased.”

Tags : chautauqua women's clubcwc tent talkJared JacobsenMassey Memorial Organpage-turnerRuth Powell

The author Deborah Trefts

Deborah Trefts is a policy scientist with extensive United States, Canadian and additional international experience in conservation. She focuses on the resolution of ocean and freshwater-related challenges and the art and science of deciphering and developing public policy at all levels from global to local.