MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER
Josh Stafford entered the 2021 Chautauqua season excited, but hesitant. With COVID-19 regulations seemingly changing every day, Stafford wasn’t sure what his first in-person year as the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and director of sacred music would look like practically until the season started.
“It’s been wonderful to settle into a rhythm and have everything go so well this year,” he said.
Reflecting on this year, Stafford said he worked nearly nonstop all summer.
“I had always known this was a big job, and it never really stopped, but I don’t think I was quite prepared for the pace of the season,” he said. “It really is relentless in a wonderful way.”
The pace will finally relent after this Sunday’s 8 p.m. Sacred Song Service in the Amphitheater.
As with every Sacred Song, “Day is Dying in the West” and “Largo” on the organ are featured songs, Stafford said. For anthems, he has selected “For the Beauty of the Earth” by John Rutter, “The House of Faith has Many Rooms,” by Craig Phillips and “Alleluia,” by Randall Thompson.
“I’m hoping to provide an uplifting and cheerful end to a wonderful season,” he said.
Stafford experienced worship in the Amp six days each week. He said it was wonderful working with the Motet Choir.
“It’s been a treat working with a group of singers who are mostly professional musicians in their day-to-day lives,” he said.
Regarding the 5,640-pipe Massey Memorial Organ, Stafford said it sounded better than it has in years.
Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson only had exemplary words for Stafford, saying he could not be more pleased with how Stafford’s performed this year.
“Nobody can quarrel with his ability to play,” Robinson said. “I’d put him up against anybody at any age with any amount of experience. He is just a brilliant musician.”
Robinson said it’s clear the choir loves working for him.
“They rehearse seriously, and they give him their all,” he said. “That is a lot of them, of course, it’s also a lot of Josh. I think he inspires that in people.”
Stafford is a dynamic musician, playing a concerto one day and improvising a silent movie the next, something Robinson said most people wouldn’t dare attempt or have the skillset to attempt. Robinson was also impressed with people’s reactions to the silent movies.
“People were laughing, and nobody was leaving,” he said.
For Sunday and weekday services, Stafford does not choose the music until he knows the scripture lesson and the sermon title.
“He can find a text that so goes with the sermon, you’d think the preacher wrote it,” Robinson said. “It’s an astounding thing. Our preachers have all noticed, they’re all like, ‘Who chose this music? It is perfect!’ It’s Josh.”
In addition to the almost-daily sermons, Robinson said this might be the best group of preachers he’s seen since being at Chautauqua.
“I’ve had more positive feedback about the preachers than I can ever remember getting,” he said.
Each one wrote a separate liturgy, something new for Chautauqua, he said. No two services repeated, while previous years saw three weeks of services repeated twice more, so each one of the services was done three times, he said.
Due to the pandemic, Robinson said no worship booklets were used this year, instead displaying hymns on the screens.
“For the most part, people have really liked that, and as a person up front it is nice to have people looking straight ahead or upwards and singing, as opposed to looking down into their book and singing into their book,” he said. “It just sounds better.”
The smaller choir was also a necessary change, he said, but he was amazed by the volume of music they did.
This Sunday, Robinson will be the preacher.
“That always adds a bit of drama to my life, because how do you sum up a season?” he said.
He has an answer, though. His sermon, titled “Are We More Than a Theme Park?” will challenge people and offer a meaningful end to the summer, he said.
“Are we just here to be intellectually entertained, or is there more to it than that?” he said. “Do we hope for something more than that? What is that, and what does it look like?”
Turning back to Stafford, Robinson is proud to have him on staff, and feels it might be his best decision in his four years at Chautauqua.
For Stafford, it’s been a dream come true, though he said it wasn’t the way he expected to get the job, following the sudden death of Chautauqua’s previous organist, Jared Jacobsen, on Aug. 27, 2019.
“This is a job I have dreamed of having since I was a kid,” he said.
Looking ahead to next year, Stafford is hopeful for a choir at least doubled in size, bringing organ recitals back to the Amp and having the organ heard at the Hall of Christ again. He also hopes to bring in an organ scholar to pass the knowledge and experience of Chautauqua to the next generation, he said.
In the immediate future, Stafford said he is looking forward to resting after the season ends. He’ll return to his other job in Jacksonville, Florida, another relatively new position for him. For this year, it’s proven to be everything he hoped for, he said.
“I’m so excited to be here and be a part of Chautauqua and so thankful for the warm welcome I’ve received from almost everyone this summer,” he said. “It’s been really wonderful.”