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‘Multifaceted musician’ Ben Folds to bring pop, rock and orchestral tones to virtual Chautauqua performance

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This year has given Ben Folds plenty to sing about. 

Folds, American singer-songwriter, recorded his latest single “2020” in Sydney, Australia, where he has been since early March. Folds was in the middle of an Australian orchestral tour when COVID-19 reached the continent. 

In just under two-and-a-half minutes, Folds put the events of the year to a tune. 

“Don’t it seem like decades ago / Back in 2019 / Back when life was slow,” he sings on the track released on June 25. “We’re just halfway done / 2020, hey are we having fun? / How many years will we try to cram into one?”

Folds, musician, composer and record producer, will perform “An Evening with Ben Folds” at 5 p.m. EDT Friday, July 10, on CHQ Assembly’s Video Platform

“We seem to be currently reliving and cramming a number of historically tumultuous years into one,” Folds told Rolling Stone. “For a moment it was all about the 1918 pandemic. Then we began seeing hints of the Great Depression before flipping the calendar forward to the Civil Rights protests of the Sixties. Running beneath this is the feeling that we’re in the Cold War, while seeing elements that brought us to the Civil War rearing their head, making us wonder if we’ve learned a damn thing at all.”

Since the release of his first album in 1995, Folds has become the musical Everyman. He has released pop and alternative rock albums with his band, Ben Folds Five, multiple solo albums, a classical piano concerto and collaborations with artists ranging from Regina Spektor to “Weird Al” Yankovic. 

He has many roles outside of music, but even within music, he has a band, he tours with other musicians and he’s also one of the most popular performers with orchestras right now. He is just so versatile in everything that he does.”

But wait, there’s more. 

He is also an author, photographer, a judge on NBC’s a capella show “The Sing-Off,” the first-ever artistic adviser of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center and an advocate for arts education and music therapy, serving on the distinguished Artist Committee of Americans for the Arts, and as chairman of the national ArtsVote 2020 initiative.

Vice President of Performing and Visual Arts Deborah Sunya Moore gave his versatility the benefit of the doubt, telling Folds he can play “whatever he wants” in his virtual Chautauqua performance.

“I have always been so interested in him because he is such a multifaceted artist,” Moore said. “He has many roles outside of music, but even within music, he has a band, he tours with other musicians and he’s also one of the most popular performers with orchestras right now. He is just so versatile in everything that he does.”

Folds started his orchestral run after the release of his latest album in 2015, So There, which features eight chamber rock songs with the Brooklyn-based orchestra yMusic, as well as Folds’ “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” performed by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. It reached No. 1 on both the Billboard classical and classical crossover charts. 

In 2016, Folds told the Aquarian the album was his way of changing his sound without losing his voice.

“If someone becomes famous for something that they do, they have command over that,” Folds said. “Then it comes to writing a classical piece, and they start to imitate Chopin, or they imitate whomever, and they suddenly lose their own voice. I think my audience recognizes that they can hear all my melodies in the piece, so it does have my voice in it.”

After his performance, Moore will host a 20-minute Q-and-A where audience members can submit questions for Folds at www.questions.chq.org, or on Twitter using #CHQ2020.

This program was made possible by The Watters Family.

What makes a tradition? Institution historian and archivist Jon Schmitz to answer in Heritage Lecture

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The Audience Raises Handkerchiefs For The Drooping Of The Lillies During The Old First Night Chautauqua Birthday Celebration, Tuesday, August 7, 2018, In The Amphitheater. BRIAN HAYES/DAILY FILE PHOTO

To Jon Schmitz, historian and archivist for Chautauqua Institution, a tradition cannot be spontaneous, it cannot be mandated, and it cannot be declared on a whim. 

“I don’t feel comfortable with the term ‘new traditions.’ I think that is trying to assume legitimacy that (a practice) hasn’t earned yet,” Schmitz said. “The key (to a tradition) is to be accepted by those practicing (it) as what should be done.”

Schmitz will further explore what constitutes a tradition at 3:30 p.m. EDT Friday, July 10, on CHQ Assembly in a lecture titled “Traditions of Chautauqua.” As part of the Heritage Lecture Series, Schmitz’s presentation will explore the archive’s most-inquired-about Institution traditions.

Notable traditions include Chautauqua Salutes, Recognition Day, and the Opening Three Taps of the Gavel. Schmitz said that this lecture topic was chosen to, in some way, continue acknowledging these traditions despite remote programming preventing them from being practiced in person. 

“I thought it would be a good idea to review some of the traditions to see what they are, how they came about, when did they start, (and) was there a reason for them,” Schmitz said.

Although the community cannot physically participate in some of these traditions, the Institution is working to keep them intact. Schmitz said he is aware of efforts to organize a virtual Recognition Day, an all-day annual celebration of Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle graduates. The Institution has worked to virtually maintain traditions by ushering in the 2020 season by premiering Three Taps on CHQ Assembly. 

(Our traditions) accumulate meaning over time for Chautauqua, and also for individual Chautauquans,” Schmitz said. “It’s a way of remembering the past. It’s also the way of bringing the past into the present, so that we can put things into the perspective of past, present, and future.”

In his opening Three Taps of the Gavel, Institution President Michael E. Hill formally launched the virtual season from the Amphitheater, where a traditional, in-person season would begin. In his Three Taps, Hill spoke about Chautauquan traditions as reflections of programming, values, and the Institution’s place in the world. 

“Tradition is important at Chautauqua. It’s the reason we’re here on this stage today. The same space which almost every assembly has been ushered in, and where we hold our principle worship service,” Hill said. “Our traditions are replete with important symbols that tell stories about our history and our present role in the world.”

For the Institution, Schmitz said that traditions allow the history to be passed down and kept alive through the years. Even as the Institution and its audience evolves, the history is still kept alive. 

“(Our traditions) accumulate meaning over time for Chautauqua, and also for individual Chautauquans,” Schmitz said. “It’s a way of remembering the past. It’s also the way of bringing the past into the present, so that we can put things into the perspective of past, present, and future.”

The Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series is made possible with a gift from Jeff Lutz and Cathy Nowosielski.

Joan Donovan Talks About Media Manipulation and Online Extremism

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Uncle Sam is a meme, “an idea, that’s sort of like a piece of DNA,” said Joan Donovan. “It gets transmitted, usually through people, but also through media, and it spreads between people.”

A meme is an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture, but usually refers to online images. Uncle Sam is one meme that has been around since 1917, on posters with the words “I want you for the U.S. Army.” Donovan said Uncle Sam was based on a similar poster in London, and has since been through many different iterations for military recruitment campaigns.

Donovan is the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and leads The Technology and Social Change Project in examining the internet, online extremism and disinformation. On July 9, she presented her lecture, “On Media Manipulation and Online Extremism,” as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series on CHQ Assembly, and discussed the nature of memes and their role in the U.S. political conversation, particularly in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. This was the fourth presentation in Week Two’s theme of “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives.” 

With the internet, memes have moved online, creating what Donovan and many news sites call a “meme war.” There are four characteristics to understand specific memes and how they travel across the internet and world: Memes tend to be authorless; every profession has memes; they tend to stick with people; and they promote participation with the audience.

One such meme that was important in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election was Pepe the Frog, which became a symbol for the alt-right and white supremacists. Pepe is a frogman and started as a character in a comic online. Donovan said the frog is very easy to draw and make changes to, so many people started to draw their own Pepes, until the internet had thousands of different iterations of the frog. In 2016, certain versions of Pepe became very popular, particularly ones drawn as Hilter, according to Donovan.

“I’m not making the claim that online meme culture voted (President Donald Trump) into office. What I am making is the claim that their participation in political communication online, really amped up and created the energy needed to meme Trump into existence, and to give him relevancy amongst younger populations,” Donovan said. “Even if they didn’t go vote for him en masse … it helped create an environment where people would share these memes and then talk about Trump’s political platform.”

By 2016, politicians began to realize the power of social media, and Donovan said social media and memes helped candidates like Bernie Sanders and Trump become popular and discussed among younger generations. An example of a less popular meme from Sanders’ campaign came from when he was giving a speech. 

“A little bird just kind of sat down on the podium,” Donovan said, “and it looked at him and he looked at the bird and, in a very Snow White way, the bird flew away. Instantly his social media team was like, ‘That’s it.’”

This meme did not become popular, as Donovan said, because it felt forced. On the other side of the political spectrum, Trump’s social media presence often confuses people, and Donovan said this is because he is targeting five to six separate audiences, including younger audiences. One of his social media strategies is “dropping a thing into the world without much context, and then watch people try to sort it out.”

For example, a few months ago, the president tweeted a picture of himself as fictional boxer Rocky Balboa, without any words. Thousands of people commented and made their own versions, including ones where “Nancy Pelosi or Sanders were knocking Trump out.”

In the 2016 campaign, Donovan said the alt-right largely ignored Hillary Clinton, until the former U.S. Secretary of State made statements about them and called Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables.”

“She had really kicked this hornet’s nest of people that may have largely ignored her and focused most of their energy on creating messaging for Trump,” Donovan said. “But because she had entered into a political conversation about the alt-right, they had felt attacked and swarmed back.”

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Shannon Rozner, chief of staff and vice president of strategic initiatives for Chautauqua Institution. The first question was how people who do not know they are spreading lies fit into a disinformation campaign.

Donovan shared a recent example of disinformation being spread about COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, people shared on social media that if someone drinks water every 15 minutes, they can protect themselves from COVID-19. Oftentimes, disinformation will have an appealing headline that confirms a person’s point of view. 

We do need to begin to devise systems where these corporations are acting more in the service of the public, and less in the service of the bottom line,” Donovan said. “That needs to be our bottom line.”

Donovan said that in the online world, confirmations of any point of view can be found, including that the earth is flat. While she said it is probably not dangerous to believe in a flat earth, this issue comes down to if the internet is supposed to enhance knowledge, or to share information of any kind.

The last question from Rozner: If Donovan could design the way that the internet and regulations would work, what would it look like?

“I think we need a lot more at the front end of our information ecosystem. We need curation,” Donovan said.

In an article she wrote for Wired last week, she said content moderation has to have systems that are reactive to what people post, especially when it comes to issues that involve money and lives — such as posts about the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, Donovan said that more than 100,000 new web domains have been registered dedicated to COVID-19 and coronavirus, many completely empty and some that are scams selling fake products. 

Social media companies have had to adapt. To try to lessen the amount of people sharing false headlines, Twitter has made a notification that warns users if they are sharing a link that they themselves haven’t clicked on. Facebook in recent weeks has changed the way it operates in an attempt to lessen the amount of civil rights violations on its platform. 

“We do need to begin to devise systems where these corporations are acting more in the service of the public, and less in the service of the bottom line,” Donovan said. “That needs to be our bottom line.”

Franklin Leonard spotlights unseen forces from Frederick Douglass to modern-day Hollywood that shape society

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The greatest abolitionist believed in the power of images, leading a descendant of slaves to believe in the power of imagery in motion. 

Even though nearly 168 years separate Franklin Leonard’s 2020 Chautauqua lecture from Frederick Douglass and his 1852 speech, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?,” Leonard finds the parallels between them “inescapable.” 

But there is one thing that doesn’t overlap. Leonard is using his words to give a voice to the unseen, something Douglass never was — Douglass, who was born roughly 20 years before the first person was photographed, was the most photographed American of the 19th century, more than Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum, Abraham Lincoln or any other president of the era. 

Leonard, CEO and founder of the Black List, spoke Wednesday, July 8, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, delivering his lecture, “How the Black List Revives Dead Scripts,” as part of Week Two’s theme, “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives.”

“Douglass believed deeply in the power of photographs to define the reality outside their frames,” Leonard said. “If Douglass believed so deeply in the power of a single frame, one can only imagine what potential he would have seen in a motion picture — stories projected high and wide and transmitted around the world with a single keystroke.”  

Motion pictures are Leonard’s “thing.” He grew up in West Central Georgia, where his adolescence was defined by a few basic facts: he’s Black, from the Deep South and extremely good at math. Those factors, when combined, meant one thing: “I didn’t have much of a social life,” he said. 

Instead, he split his time between school and the movie theater. 

“It is reasonably safe to assume that I saw every major studio release between ‘Jurassic Park,’ which was the first time I was allowed to go to the movie theater by myself, to ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau,’ the last movie I saw in the theater before heading to Harvard as an undergrad,” he said.

Four years after graduating from Harvard University, Leonard landed a job on Sunset Boulevard as a script reader and junior executive at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way Productions.

The easiest way to distinguish a good script from a bad one is fairly simple: Read them. But the volume of material makes that “impossible.” According to Leonard, the Writer’s Guild of America registers around 50,000 pieces of material every year. About 200 will become films.

“Fundamentally, it’s triage, and when you are in triage, you tend to default to conventional wisdom about what works and what doesn’t,” Leonard said. 

Leonard is embarrassed to say he found himself in triage, but proud to have found a way out. In 2005, he sent an anonymous email to friends in the industry asking for a list of up to 10 of their favorite unproduced screenplays of the past year.

“I was looking for the scripts that people loved, untouched by the unseen market forces that, more often than not, determine their value in Hollywood,” Leonard said. “It was an opportunity for people to speak their mind about what they love.”

Leonard compiled the results and emailed the spreadsheet to everyone who submitted scripts. He called it the “Black List” — “a tribute to those who had lost their careers during the anticommunist hysteria of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and the conscious inversion of the assumption that black, somehow, has a negative connotation,” he said. 

The list went viral in the only way something could in 2005 — via email. Leonard was so scared he would get fired, he vowed to keep his decision a secret and never do it again. But six months later, he received a phone call from an agent who changed his mind. After pitching a movie, the agent tried to “sell” Leonard by saying he was certain that script would be No. 1 on next year’s Black List, not knowing that Leonard himself was the creator of that list.

“This agent was exactly right about this list being evidence of a good script’s value, and that a great script has even greater value than people may have previously assumed,” he said. “To put it another way, the unseen forces that govern a script’s value were wrong.” 

Since its inception, just over 1,200 screenplays have been added to the Black List. A third of them have been produced, earning nearly 300 Oscar nominations and winning 50.

In November 2016, Harvard Business School released a study stating Black List scripts were twice as likely to be made into films, and those films would make 90% more revenue than movies made with similar budgets.

“The conventional wisdom — the unseen, even within the industry, (the) forces that determine what has value in Hollywood and what doesn’t — is wrong,” he said. “It is all conventional and no wisdom.”

Because it’s “all conventional,” the young Leonard who adored movies never saw a place for himself in the business. But the success of the Black List forced him to consider a question: If the industry was wrong about the talent that was already in the system, what about the talent that wasn’t? 

Seven years after the first Black List, Leonard turned the list into a website that allows anyone who has written an English-language screenplay to have it evaluated and available to industry professionals. He has also launched three screenwriter’s labs. 

“Much is right, with me, of this effect: If you can see it in life or in fiction, you can be it,” Leonard said. “Less, I think, is made of its corollary: If you see it enough, it is going to affect how you see the world.”  

The trends Leonard sees in films worry him. Girls aged 13 to 20 are just as likely as women aged 21 to 30 to be shown on various screens in “sexy attire with some nudity and referenced as attractive.” Despite studies challenging the likelihood of these notions, half of Latinx immigrants are shown to be engaged in criminal activity and 64% of gang members in films are Black, he said. 

“Should we be surprised then that an estimated 1 woman in 6 in America have been the victim of rape in some form?” Leonard said. “Or that 3 in 5 have experienced gender-based harassment in the workplace? Or that Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to be killed by police as their fellow citizens?”

As startling as those statistics are, Leonard said they still don’t match the unquantifiable realities many face daily. It is the confusion when a job interview ends before it begins; the boss or coworker who takes an after-hours interest in someone that has nothing to do with professional pursuits. It is the panic when a county sheriff raises his voice when one asks permission to remove their hands from the steering wheel, a reality Leonard lived only two years ago. It is the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that George Floyd couldn’t breathe because a police officer was kneeling on his neck, ultimately killing him. 

There has not been a year in this decade when women have accounted for more than one-third of the speaking roles in major Hollywood movies, Leonard said. In 2014, only 28.3% of all speaking roles went to people of color. Only 2% went to LGBTQ characters. Less than 9% of Hollywood films directed between the years 2013 and 2017 were directed by women. 

“The list of people who directed a feature sanctioned by the Directors Guild of America in 2013 and 2014 is roughly as diverse as Donald Trump’s cabinet,” he said. “It should come as no surprise that talent is in no way connected to race, gender or anything else — and yet, our hiring in Hollywood would suggest that we believe that it does.” 

Almost 20 years to the day after Douglass died, Hollywood held the premiere of its first-ever blockbuster, “The Birth of a Nation,” based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman. Months later, 15 men gathered in Georgia and refounded the Ku Klux Klan, which led to the lynching of Black Americans throughout the United States. 

Douglass knew the power of a single image; had he been here to see it, Leonard said, he knows Douglass would have recognized the power of a moving one, too. 

“There are unseen forces that create the images that we see and stories we consume, and those images and stories set in motion unseen forces that define how we see the world and, as a consequence, how we live in it,” Leonard said. “I don’t know how to change (the world), but I know if I keep talking about how dirty it is out here, somebody’s going to clean it up, let’s hope. Since the better part of optimism is action, let’s act.”

Martha Ruskai and Mark Boley to discuss wigs and makeup for Opera Behind-the-Scenes series

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Martha Ruskai prepares Leroy Y. Davis and Rebekah Howell for Chautauqua Opera’s 2018 production of Candide. RILEY ROBINSON/DAILY FILE PHOTO

During a typical Chautauqua Opera season, Mark A. Boley would be up to his eyeballs in hair right about now.

“These wigs don’t come in styled; they come in looking like something your dog dragged in,” said Boley, the wig and makeup assistant supervisor for Chautauqua Opera Company. “If you have a cast of 40 people, all in period hairstyles, that’s days on end of washing, shampooing, conditioning, (setting) them on blocks, putting them in rollers, combing them out, brushing them out, setting and styling.”

For the last four years, Boley and designer Martha Ruskai have comprised the Operas’ wig and makeup team. This week, the duo will join General and Artistic Director Steven Osgood for Chautauqua Opera’s Behind-the-Scenes series, which will take place at noon EDT, Thursday July 9, on the Virtual Porch. Boley and Ruskai will discuss the work they do for a regular season, share Chautauqua Opera stories and answer audience questions.

Boley and Ruskai met through opera 40 years ago, and have been working together ever since. The two have done hair and makeup for Opera Carolina, the Toledo Opera, Opera Grand Rapids and more.

“I tend to partner with her a lot,” Boley said.

At Chautauqua, with three operas a season all requiring vastly different wigs and makeup, the team keeps to a tight schedule. Most of the wigs are re-styled for each show, but Boley and Ruskai set aside time to custom-make a few for each production.

“You break out the season and look at which characters you really want to have a special look, how much time you have, when it appears in the schedule that year, and decide which wigs you want to go ahead and build,” he said.

Hand-tying a human hair wig from scratch is a meticulous process that can take several weeks. To save time, Boley often “jury-rigs” pre-made human hair wigs by cutting off the front and hand-tying a new lace hairline.

“To do it the way we do it, you can usually get a wig front in a day or two,” he said. “(Then you have) a stage-quality, natural hairline, gorgeous wig you can’t tell is a wig.”

Wigs prepared for Chautauqua Opera’s 2018 production of Candide. RILEY ROBINSON/DAILY FILE PHOTO

Some productions, like last year’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Gioachino Rossini, require more extensive projects. Boley and Ruskai made the wig for the character Basilio completely from scratch.

“That was a certain look,” he said. “It had (this) beautiful center part all the way down from the top of his head, and we wanted it to look kind of greasy and slimy looking. That was a full build.”

For Boley, the most nerve-wracking productions are those performed in the Amphitheater, because there’s only one full hair and makeup rehearsal in the space before the big day.

“It takes a lot of pre-planning. You have to really know which characters are coming off and on stage, and when, how much time you have for each change (and) where you have to be located,” he said. “You spend a lot of time thinking, ‘What could go wrong, how do I fix it now?’ … Then you just have to do the show and hope it all goes well.”

Besides delivering great hair and makeup, Boley’s goal for each season is that the Young Artists he and Ruskai work with leave with skills they can take into their next job.

“We’re doing the work in a very short period of time, but we’re also trying to teach,” he said. “Hopefully everyone goes through that program knowing a little more about different protocols in the makeup room and how to do it themselves if they need to.”

Weekly Conversation between Hill, Maxwell to cover updates on Chautauqua strategic plan

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Hill and Maxwell

Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill and Board of Trustees Chair Candy Maxwell will host a discussion regarding updates to the strategic plan, 150 Forward, during the season’s second Weekly Conversation. 

This conversation will begin at 1 p.m. EDT, Thursday, July 9, on the Virtual Porch. Audience members can join in the conversation live by submitting their questions for Hill and Maxwell. The presentation will be made available on demand the same day. 

During Week One’s conversation, which provided general updates on the summer and CHQ Assembly, Hill and Maxwell said the weekly conversations were designed as a way for the audience to join into Institution conversations, despite geographic separation. Maxwell noted that this virtual conversation may be more efficient than traditional, in-person conversations. 

In the past, weekly conversations tended to cover similar subjects because the audience would vary from week-to-week, so Institution administration could not continue the thread from preceding topics. Maxwell said that now, since people across the country can tune in and watch conversations even after they are live-streamed, they can build upon topics previously covered. 

“Because we are able to conduct these sessions virtually this year, I think we have a unique opportunity to cover a lot of different topics,” Maxwell said. “You have access to this webinar at any point during the season. Whether or not you are physically on the grounds, you are participating via an online experience.”

Hill later said that not only will the overall CHQ Assembly platform allow more complex conversation, it will facilitate more diverse perspectives. The Institution can now draw in people who would normally be limited by finances, interest, and location. 

In an effort to attract this new audience, the Institution partnered with Mather, a not-for-profit organization that provides senior living residence and community-based programming for adults 55 and up. Mather provides CHQ Assembly access to its communities so that they can learn and engage with the Institution. 

“There’s some fairly significant racial diversity in some of the communities that Mather supports that allows us to hopefully expand the representation of folks participating from a different racial background than has (traditionally) been a homogenous Chautauqua audience,” Hill said. “We’re also hoping that because price is not a barrier that we break through some socioeconomic diversity issues.”

Hill said he hopes that by reaching these new audiences, new perspectives will help shape conversations at Chautauqua.

During the conversation, Hill and Maxwell also explained the technical aspects of transitioning the Institution online. When the Board of Trustees unanimously voted to suspend in-person programming this season in May, Institution leaders quickly worked to move nine weeks of programming online — an amount of planning that is typically done over the course of several months to a year. 

Financing this new endeavor was one of many obstacles they had to quickly maneuver through. Hill said that the Institution had about $10 million in cash reserves at the start of the pandemic, and spent about $7.5 million to shore up the Institution’s annual budget and make a virtual season possible. Community donations and Paycheck Protection Program funds have softened the blow. 

A 2019 donation from Ted and Betsy Merchant to equip the grounds with technology had already spurred major infrastructure, equipment and software improvements that continued through the CHQ Assembly planning. The investments made it possible for popular event spaces to be redeployed as studios, in some cases providing familiar backgrounds.

“That gift has paid off in spades. What you can’t see on CHQ Assembly is that Lenna Hall, the Hall of Christ, the Amphitheater, the Becker Room, sometimes the Amphitheater stage, and other areas have been linked together like television studios. That gift has allowed us to talk between those buildings,” Hill said. “And we have also hardwired in camera devices in places like the Hall of Philosophy, which was our intent to use this summer for better livestreaming.” Those Hall of Philosophy cameras are temporarily being used in the Hall of Christ studio space.

In upcoming years, Hill said, the Institution plans to utilize CHQ Assembly and other online platforms as an amplifier for its content, even as programming reverts back to its traditional, in-person format. 

Chautauquans can join the Weekly Conversation at 1 p.m. EDT every Thursday this season on the Virtual Porch. Upcoming topics will include diversifying revenue, Chautauqua Lake and more. 

In Deep: Journalist David Rohde discusses new book on unseen forces of the ‘Deep State’

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When the Senate investigated decades of work from the FBI and CIA in 1976, they found that these agencies looked into more than half a million Americans who were involved in political activities protected by the Constitution, such as peaceful assembly. 

Most notably, the FBI had sent a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife with alleged evidence that he was having an affair, and that he should commit suicide or be publicly humiliated.

“But obviously, thank God, Dr. King didn’t fall for that FBI ruse,” said David Rohde, journalist and executive director of Newyorker.com. “But this was an astonishing abuse of government power.” 

Rohde has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes: one his reporting on the massacre in 1995 of Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces in Srebrenica and the second for his for his account of being held prisoner by the Taliban for seven months before his escape. His most recent book, published this spring, is In Deep: The FBI, the CIA, and the Truth about America’s “Deep State.” 

Rohde spoke on Wednesday, July 8, on CHQ Assembly, delivering a lecture for the Chautauqua Lecture Series titled “Does the Deep State Exist?” as part of Week Two’s theme of “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives.” His lecture was originally scheduled for 10:45 a.m. EDT on July 7, but due to technical difficulties was rescheduled and broadcast at 3:30 p.m. EDT July 8.

A Monmouth University poll in 2018 found that 70% of Americans believe that groups of active government officials are secretly influencing policy in Washington — commonly known as the “deep state” — and a majority felt that unelected officials had more power than they should.

“I completely agree with the premise that our elected officials should have the power in Washington,” Rohde said. “If President Trump today orders an unelected government official to carry out policy, that government official should obey that order. That’s his or her job, unless the order is somehow illegal or unethical. An elected president, a senator and a house member, they should have the power in our democracy.” 

Rohde said that one of the few topics liberals and conservatives can agree on is the existence and dangers of a deep state. Liberals are more likely to cite as evidence the military industrial complex, meaning that certain generals, defense contractors and companies are pushing the U.S. into endless war. Conservatives lean toward the idea of an administrative state, a growing federal bureaucracy that, Rohde said, “they feel is constantly and relentlessly … inserting itself in our lives and taking away our personal liberties.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is spurring the debate of the usefulness of wearing masks, and accusations that health officials are a part of the deep state.

“What’s so extraordinary and very, very tragic this spring and summer,” Rohde said, “(is that) our ability to agree on basic facts, our ability to trust government experts, is a matter of life and death.”

Generations of Americans have been suspicious of a deep state, including in 1976 when a committee in the Senate, chaired by Frank Church (D-ID) and John Tower (R-TX), investigated decades of work done by the CIA and FBI.

Rohde said that the committee found that the FBI had investigated more than half a million Americans involved in legal political activities, and tried to disrupt and discredit them. Groups targeted included the John Birch Society and the Civil Rights Movement, as he had mentioned earlier with King.

Rohde interviewed the chief investigator of the committee, Fritz Schwarz Jr., who attended Harvard. Because CIA agents at that time primarily went to top schools, Schwarz thought he would identify with them more. Instead, he was astonished by how effectively senior CIA officials could lie without being caught, and identified more with FBI officials. What did trouble Schwarz about the FBI officials was not that they were skilled liars, but how they rationalized their actions.

“I’ve seen in my reporting,” Rohde said, “the tendency of human beings to rationalize that they need to break laws, and, in some cases, I’ve seen while covering wars overseas, the need to use violence to protect their country, their way of life, their cultures, their faith and even their family.” 

Rohde then shifted to how Trump’s use of the phrase “deep state” has grown. At first, Trump applied it to the CIA and FBI’s investigations of his 2016 campaign and alleged ties to Russia. When Pentagon officials questioned the president’s desire not to have a group reinvestigated for war crimes, he called the Pentagon part of the deep state. Recently, Trump supporters have also called public health officials part of the deep state.

Trump is skeptical of government in general — as are many conservatives — and believes that government officials work harder for certain presidents, slowly implementing policies for presidents they don’t like, according to Rohde. 

“But the president is sort of a product of his own background. He grew up in New York in a very rough and tumble and hyper-competitive world. … In New York, there’s a sense that everybody in every project has sort of an angle; everybody is exaggerating a little bit what they’re claiming regarding their deal,” Rohde said.

Rohde has interviewed staffers of the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, as well as current and former members of the Trump administration. Rhode said that these sources said that “the president’s view of these scheming civil servants is exaggerated, that it’s not true, it’s not as severe as President Trump says.”

Tom O’Connor, former president of the FBI Agents Association, said that there is a deep cynicism about the state of U.S. politics. O’Connor, as well as other CIA officials Rohde interviewed, felt that their work is used to score political points, and is hidden by politicians when it does not help their cause.

Rohde asked O’Connor if he ever considered running for office, and he said, “No, I’d never run for office. I wanted to do something that actually has meaning.”

“That’s a very dangerous sign, I think, for the state of our democracy,” Rohde said. “And I worry that we’re in a constant cycle of conspiracy theory and revision and fighting, that’s leading us to question basic facts.” 

This questioning of basic facts has been seen through the pandemic. Rohde said that most liberals believe the numbers of COVID-19 deaths is more than what the government reports, whereas conservatives believe that the amount of reported deaths is fewer.

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, and questions sent in from the live audience. Ewalt asked Rohde what role journalists play in the culture at the moment.

With the rise of the internet, the journalism industry had to change its basic business structure of print advertising. Rohde said this collapse of print ads led to the pressure on journalists to get the audience to watch and click on their work, have exciting headlines, and play on conspiracy theories — while also sticking to the facts.

“And the more partisan reporters are, (as opposed to) just people trying to write great news stories with just facts in them, I think that hurts us,” Rohde said. “Let the columnists throw bombs. And so myself, in my own work, and other colleagues try to stick to the facts as much as possible.”

The last question was about how people can have a healthy skepticism and not drown in conspiratorial thinking.

Rohde advised people to subscribe to their local newspapers and websites, read widely and also read more mainstream news instead of articles on Facebook and social media. 

“Just give mainstream journalists a chance. I think you’ve seen what is out there on the wild, wild web,” Rohde said. “And I think it’s time to give a chance for vetted, traditional journalism.”

Piano Program co-chairs Nikki Melville & John Milbauer to play duets in virtual recital

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Chautauqua Piano Program Co-Chairs John Milbauer, Left, And Nicola Melville On Sunday, July 29, 2018 Outside Of The Amphitheater. HALDAN KIRSCH/DAILY FILE PHOTO

As students in Chautauqua’s School of Music, John Milbauer and Nikki Melville played their first duet together in 1992. Now co-chairs of the School of Music’s Piano Program, they have played together countless times, learning the ins and outs of each other as musicians and people. 

With more than 1,600 miles between their pianos, this year’s unprecedented performance put their knowledge to the test. According to Melville, they passed with flying colors. 

“After doing this, I think we can do just about anything together,” Melville said, “(and) never again will I take the energy of him beside me for granted.” 

Milbauer and Melville will give a joint piano recital at 4 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 8, on CHQ Assembly’s Virtual Porch. 

Instead of playing solo renditions, the duo decided to stick with what they know best. To mimic their usual side-by-side setup, the performance will play on a split screen. To achieve this, one person recorded their part of the duet first and sent it over to the other person, who played along to the first recording. 

“We had no click track, metronome or anything,” she said. “It was really hard. It felt like the first person was playing into a vacuum, while also having to pace themselves to fit the other person’s part in. What you learn is that human beings have very different concepts of time.”

Milbauer and Melville will play three pieces: selections from “The Dolly Suite” Op. 56 by Gabriel Fauré; “Rondo” in A major, D. 951, by Franz Schubert; and “Sonata for Two Pianos,” in D major, K. 448, composed by Mozart. 

The two movements they chose from “The Dolly Suite” are “Le jardin de Dolly” and “Le pas espagnol.” They have performed both together before. 

“Le jardin de Dolly” delivers the enchanting “music of nature,” according to Melville. A phrase from Fauré’s first violin sonata, written some 20 years earlier, also appears in the work. “Le pas espagnol” is an “exhilarating allegro,” Melville said, full of Latin notes and vibrant color.

“They are gorgeous pieces, but we love playing them together because each selection is short and really fun in my opinion,” Melville said. “It’s a great way to set the palate for the rest of the performance. It gets the energy up rather quickly.”

Next on the program is “Rondo,” which Schubert modelled using the lyrical finale of Beethoven’s piano sonata. The theme of the piece echoes Beethoven’s in its similar harmonic pattern, where the melody’s initial phrase is followed by a “bolder ending” in terms of octaves.

Melville said this piece is a favorite of Milbauer’s — and was particularly difficult for her to play.

“Because he loves this one so much, he went ahead and played it first,” she said. “He was playing all of these melodies and rubatos with such expression and trying to fit my accompaniment in that … felt so unnatural. It was a good example of something particularly hard to do in this format.”

For a more “substantial piece,” Melville said they will finish their recital with 20 minutes of Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos.”

“(Mozart’s sonata) is a staple in the two piano repertoire,” Melville said. “I would never call anything by Mozart delicate, but this piece is very finely etched. The decisions are very small. You are making choices about shape and timing and nuance on almost a note-by-note basis.” 

Melville considers this piece a testament to Mozart’s role as one of the most “transparent and exacting of composers.” 

“Playing Mozart is very personal,” Melville said. “Making Mozart really speak is an individual thing, so then trying to do that with two people together  — and finding the place where both people are feeling authenticity in how that piece works, is quite challenging.” 

Just by virtue of circumstances, the performance will be far from perfect, but Melville said its imperfections are part of a larger point.

“It was really important for us to be models of the real world for our students,” Melville said. “I tell my students time and time again, ‘If you wait for everything to be perfect before you decide to perform, you will never perform.’ Own it, commit to it and do your very best. That’s all we can do.”

Cedric Alexander Talks the Reformation of Policing and Systemic Racism

Michael Hill and Cedric Alexander
Michael Hill and Cedric Alexander
Hill and Alexander

During the time of Jim Crow laws, elected officials used police departments to keep people of color oppressed.

“So that history is there, it is real. It is still real in the minds of many people who have shared those experiences, has been passed down from one generation to the next,” said Cedric Alexander, the former chief of police in DeKalb County, Georgia and former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

Those experiences were seen in the 1990s with the beating of Rodney King and in 2014 with the death of Michael Brown — both at the hands of police. And this strained relationship is still seen in 2020, Alexander said, with the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

“So here we are now, in 2020, with the horrible event that we all witnessed in front of us, a murder that took place shamelessly by four officers who appeared to just do have no moral compass, no sense of humanity and an inability to have any compassion to someone who was begging for their life, and even begging for their mother, as life was leaving (their) body — in people standing there on the streets begging officers to let him breathe … even up to the point that he could not breathe anymore,” Alexander said.

Alexander is a former member of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing — formed after Brown’s death in 2014 — and has served for four decades in law enforcement and public service. He is also the author of two books. He spoke with Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill on Monday, July 6, on CHQ Assembly, delivering a presentation for the Chautauqua Lecture Series titled “Reformation of Policing and Systemic Racism,” opening Week Two’s theme of “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives.” 

Alexander discussed Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor’s deaths, the former reminiscent of a past of “running down someone and taking them into captivity” and the latter “irresponsible on so many levels.”

These events, as well as many others, led to conversations around change — in private industries, sports, schools and universities, law enforcement and all levels of government.

Hill’s first question was about why the recent protests have not subsided.

Alexander said that forces have been developing over time, particularly in recent years. The protests following Brown’s death in 2014 saw a diverse group of people in attendance. In the protests following Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, there has been a resurgence of young people and multiple generations “who are all taking a stand against racism in this country, against sexism, against homophobia, against all the -isms that are out there.”

Social media plays a role, Alexander said, allowing thousands of people to organize like never before. Social media also contributed to the rapid sharing of cell phone footage taken of Floyd’s arrest and death, which was witnessed by people across the United States, and around the world.

“Anybody who had any type of humanity about themselves, it rips your heart out of your chest, and we knew, at that very moment, that something very different needs to happen in this country,” Alexander said.

People of color often weren’t believed when they told their experiences of racism until body cameras and cell phone cameras were invented, Alexander said. He also said that people are not only talking about change they would like to see, but are also taking action to make change happen.

“I am so proud to be an American. I’m so proud to be a part of a country that is 244 years old, and in spite of the challenges that we … struggle through in our short period of time on this planet, we have accomplished a lot,” Alexander said. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”

Hill asked about the main pillars of Obama’s Policing Task Force, and how they connect with current issues.

In 2014, Obama convened a group of stakeholders to create a roadmap of how to develop relationships between police and the community. That group, including Alexander, traveled around the country collecting information from human rights groups, civil rights groups, police unions, academics and others. Two months later, Obama signed off on the report, issued around the country to help police departments and communities develop bonds.

For Alexander, one of the most important pillars of that project was building relationships, trust and legitimacy between police and the community. He said that public safety depends on communities and police working intimately together, and that many police departments continue to work and improve upon these relationships.

Hill then asked how reform would help police officers lead more balanced lives, coupled with their very difficult jobs.

Alexander said that with such a job, stress is built over time, affecting a person consciously and unconsciously. This stress may cause marital or family problems, as well as aggravate pre-existing conditions. Alexander said that there should be an officer assistance program, which officers can use confidentially, and have a psychological assessment each year or every couple years, “not as a way to get them off the job, but a way to keep them healthy while they’re on the job.”

The conversation then shifted to questions from the audience. One of the questions was about police militarization.

Alexander said that the “military-style look” has its place in American policing only under certain conditions, such as deploying SWAT teams to combat terrorists. He said military equipment is not acceptable as a response to peaceful protesting. 

“So you have some little small town in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, wherever, they’ve got what would appear to be tanks, they’ve got all kinds of weaponry … it gives the impression that we’re at war with our communities,” Alexander said. “We’re not at war. We’re not”

The report from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that in order to acquire military equipment, police departments needed to show why they needed such items, confirm that they’d been trained in their usage, and demonstrate how the equipment would help the community.

In the past, Alexander said, “(the equipment was) just passed out. No policy, no training, no nothing, and departments just decide” whatever they want, and however it should be used.

The last question was what everyone could do, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, to make America’s democracy stronger.

Alexander said each person needs to take individual responsibility.

“We all of us harbor some bias towards some person, place, or thing. And if we do, we need to be able to acknowledge it,” he said. “And once we acknowledge it, we need to be able to engage it.”

ChamberFest Cleveland to feature Granados, Mendelssohn in piano trio

Diana Cohen
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Cohen, Rabinovich and An

Enrique Granados was terrified of drowning, but his desire to perform led him to the sea.

His 1911 masterpiece, Goyescas, is a piano suite inspired by the paintings of Francisco Goya. Five years later, it was adapted into an opera that received its premiere in New York City. Originally from Spain, Granados embarked on his first-ever ocean voyage to play in America. 

After conquering his American debut, Granados set sail for France. Somewhere along the English Channel, his ship was hit by a German submarine. He and his wife both drowned. 

While Granados might be best known for the irony of his death, Diana Cohen, violinist and founder and co-artistic director of ChamberFest Cleveland, is more focused on what the composer left behind: his “beautiful, unfinished and rarely played Violin Sonata.”

Cohen and her husband Roman Rabinovich, a pianist, will bring the sonata to CHQ Assembly’s Video Platform at 4 p.m. EDT Monday, July 6. Joining them for a second piece is cellist Dongkyun An.

“(Granados’) sonata is like a short story, because you get a huge range of emotion and go from one to another very quickly through one movement,” Cohen said. “You feel like you get to have it all with this piece. Roman and I don’t feel it gets enough recognition for that.”

ChamberFest Cleveland was launched in 2012 by Cohen and her father, Cleveland Orchestra principal clarinet Franklin Cohen. It was intended to create thematic programming for unique chamber music — a performance style that features a small group of musicians with individual roles. 

However, Cohen said the virtual component created space for a “new goal.”

“All of a sudden, we had to take into account what pieces would be easier for someone to take in over the internet,” Cohen said. “That’s harder than it sounds, but it also creates an opportunity to include pieces you might not have otherwise.”

To conclude, An will join Cohen and Rabinovich for Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66, which was composed in 1845. The work consists of four movements scored for a standard piano trio consisting of violin, cello and piano.

The opening movement is cast in a traditional sonata form, with the first theme featuring a foreboding “dark and stormy” emotional tone, Cohen said, indicative of Mendelssohn’s harmonic style.

In the way the piece is orchestrated, Cohen said she believes Mendelssohn wanted the trio to “play the piece like an organ.” 

“It is so lush and passionate and dramatic,” Cohen said. “The intensity of the opening meets a much softer end, which takes you to various places as a listener. Suddenly, you hear a soft but very famous church hymn that becomes more and more grand throughout. This is one instance in chamber music where I really feel like I am playing in an orchestra.”  

For those reasons, Cohen said the piece is an “audience favorite.” 

“People always enjoy hearing the passion in this one, so it felt appropriate to give them something we know they will appreciate as much as we do,” she said.

The trio had to re-record the program three times, a lofty feat as Mendelssohn’s piece clocks in at 30 minutes long on average. Along with a re-do caused by a bow mishap, Cohen said she was met with an unfamiliar struggle. 

“In our previous lives, we had performances and then we had recording sessions — now, they are constantly combined,” she said. “Recording sessions notoriously make people uptight and it takes a certain mindset to perform when you are recording. Many of us get bent out of shape about being perfect because we spend our lives listening to records that have been edited over and over again.”

It’s “all worth it in the end,” according to Jacqueline Taylor, Cleveland ChamberFest’s co-executive director.

“The beauty of it is that the music is what actually gets us to try to adapt,” Taylor said. “If it weren’t for Mendelssohn, we would have no reason to put all of this effort in. It is the end result of hearing a beautiful piece come together that makes us want to figure out how to bring it to life.”

This program is made possible by Jeff and Norma Glazer.

“Attention to Detail: Glass 2020” reimagines glass work

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    Contemporary glass works featured in “Attention to Detail: Glass 2020.” The exhibition will open with a 3D virtual gallery tour starting at 10 a.m. EDT Monday, July 6 on the Chautauqua Visual Arts website. PHOTO COURTESY OF JUDY BARIE

There was a time when colorful pressed glass vases, dishes, cups and more adorned millions of American homes.

“The pressed glass industry was a massive booming industry at one point,” said sculptor Amber Cowan. “There were entire towns, cities really, built around a cut glass factory. Now people just recognize this stuff as tchotchkes, (stuff) their grandma had around her house.”

While many of these pieces are now collecting dust on thrift store shelves, flea market tables and long-closed factories, Cowan’s sculptures bring pressed glass all the way into the new century.

The Philadelphia-based artist is one of four contemporary glassblowers and sculptors reimagining glasswork in Chautauqua Visual Art’s newest exhibition, “Attention to Detail: Glass 2020.”

The exhibition, curated by Judy Barie the Susan and John Turben Director of CVA Galleries, will at 10 a.m. EDT Monday, July 6, on the Chautauqua Visual Arts website. That 3D virtual tour of the exhibition will be available on the CVA website for the rest of the season. Pieces from any of this season’s CVA exhibitions, as well as works created by the School of Art faculty, are available for sale on the website.

“Attention to Detail” can be viewed in-person at the Bellowe Family Gallery in the Strohl Art Center from 1 to 5 p.m. EDT, Tuesday through Saturday from July 8 to Aug. 24.

Cowan has five pieces in the exhibition. To create her large glass sculptures, she starts by collecting barrels of vintage cullet, or glass waste, from defunct glass factories. She then melts down the cullet and transforms it into intricate flamework leaves and florals, which are incorporated into antique pressed glass vases and other pieces she uncovers at thrift stores and flea markets. Most of the glass she works with comes from between the ‘40s and the ‘80s.

The pale pink, greens and blue of her pieces serve as a time capsule back to the heyday of pressed glass.

“Basically all of the colors I use are colors that are no longer being produced anymore,” Cowan said.

Leo Tecosky has four pieces in the exhibition. The Brooklyn-based sculptor draws inspiration from graffiti art with his blown, engraved, enamel and neon glass sculptures.

“I have always loved graffiti as an art form and as a form of social expression, so aesthetically it was a natural jumping off point for me,” he said. “Having appreciated and done some graffiti in my life, I’m using the glass processes to create those graffiti-style forms.”

His work explores the contrasts and surprising similarities between the mediums of glass and graffiti.

“Glass is traditionally known as being fragile, but it’s also extremely durable and long lasting; it doesn’t break down over time on its own,” Tecosky said. “Graffiti is very ephemeral, because it’s just paint on a wall that can be torn down, painted over and bricked over … (but) people do graffiti constantly, so it has its permanence in that way. … They both have these interchangeable plays on longevity.”

In his ongoing “Glass Portraits” series, photographer and sculptor Ryann Cooley examines the evolving relationship between photography and glass.

“They’ve been together since the beginning of photography, through lenses and glass plates,” he said. “Now in this digital world, fiber optics (made with glass optical fibers) are transporting billions of these photographs every day, all over the place. So glass and photography are still intricately connected.”

Cooley has four portraits in the exhibition. Through this project, he seeks to separate the photograph from its subject, turning it into a sculpture of its own.

“When we typically look at a photograph, we don’t think of it as a photograph — we think of it as (its) subject matter,” he said. “I wanted to see if I could make a photograph that could really only be fully understood in person.”

His portraits, actually a conglomeration of five to eight different portraits overlaid into one figure, are hung upside down.

“Just by simply turning the image upside down when somebody sees it they think, ‘Oh wait, something’s wrong here,’” Cooley said. “And now they’re thinking about the photograph and not the subject.”

A thin glass rod with a small orb on the end is placed in the center of each piece. By approaching the portrait, one can see the image reflected right-side up within the glass, in the same way that the human eye perceives images upside down, only to be righted by the brain,

“People who don’t understand how optics work, they’ve asked me, ‘How did you get the image in the orb?’” Cooley said. “And I say to them, ‘I didn’t. You did it — just by looking.’”

God shows up for the poor in the Magnificat — a song of revolution that turns the world upside down — says Blackmon

Blackmon

“What to me is the Fourth of July?” asked the Rev. Traci DeVon Blackmon. “Will its great principles and social justice be extended to people like me? We live in a nation where freedom has been muted by praxis.”

Blackmon preached at the 10:45 a.m. EDT Sunday, July 5, service of worship and sermon on CHQ Assembly. Her sermon title was “We, too, Sing of Freedom.” Her text was Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV), which she recited from memory.

“And Mary said, / ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, / and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, / 

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. / Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; / for the Mighty One has done great things for me, / and holy is his name. / His mercy is for those who fear him / from generation to generation. / He has shown strength with his arm; / he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. / He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, / and lifted up the lowly; / he has filled the hungry with good things, / and sent the rich away empty. / He has helped his servant Israel, / in remembrance of his mercy, / according to the promise he made to our ancestors, / to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’” 

“Stories and narratives are crafted contextually, socially and politically,” Blackmon said. “How we see these stories may be different, but we see God in all our understandings.”

Blackmon cited Frederick Douglass’ keynote address from July 5, 1852: “What to a slave is the Fourth of July?” 

“He acknowledged the great ideas of the Fourth of July and the hypocrisy of those who enslaved people. I read it every year,” she said. “Freedom remains as distant now as it did then; 168 years later we are struggling with actualizing the freedoms promised.”

She did not deny that progress has been made but said that “equity is not found for the whole (nation). In this confusing and chaotic time, The Magnificat, Mary’s Song, is a text that speaks to us.”

Mary was a member of a poor community that knew religion and politics were intertwined, a people who were familiar with the “divide and conquer” tactics of the ruling class. “There was competition and strife among those who should have been working together,” Blackmon said.

In the midst of this chaos, Mary lifted her voice in song.

“When we concentrate on the syrupy sentimentality of Jesus’ birth, we miss the revolutionary act of God choosing an African, Semitic, Palestinian child, living in a police state to sing against the empire,” Blackmon said. “There was injustice built into that society, too, what Audrey Lorde called hierarchies of oppression.”

Mary sang a song of freedom at a time when the 90 percent of poor people of color were controlled by the 10 percent.

“What does it mean today,” Blackmon asked, “with COVID-19 choking life out of communities of color? What an in-breaking of God (in this song), of love and life,in a community where freedom has not come.”

Mary’s song of hope turns everything upside down. “I grasp for this hope; it is meant for us,” Blackmon said.

The mother of Jesus is often seen as quiet and passive. “Luke sees her as a prophet of the God who shakes up the status quo,” she said. “It is an announcement of God’s revolution and revolution does not come in a time of peace. This announcement will change the order of how we think, act and live.”

She continued, “God chose a 13-year-old girl from a fourth-world country with dark skin, dark eyes and nappy hair. She was a doulos, a servant/slave girl. She is Sally Hemmings, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, a mother caged at the border, an essential worker with no protective mask.”

Blackmon urged the congregation not to get caught up in the poetry or “loveliness” of the words. “It is a revolutionary song, a song of freedom that turns the world upside down. Don’t miss the power of the moment,” she said.

If you miss the moment, she told the virtual congregation, “you miss the movement of God. God respects, exalts, feeds, remembers and helps the poor. God shows up for the poor. Mary’s song is the introit to an economic, political and moral revolution.”

When Jesus first declared his mission to his synagogue in Nazareth, he quoted the prophet Isaiah. Jesus was anointed to preach good news to the poor, free the captives, recover the sight of the blind and let the oppressed go free.

“The Magnificat is for those who are left out, locked out. It is the womb ready to birth a new song,” Blackmon said. “It connects us to the past, to Miriam, Deborah and Hannah. It is in the present and brings us an expectation of things to come.”

God is on the side of those who are left out, those on the borders, those without a safety net, those on the bottom, wherever they are found. God triumphs through the revolutionary act of love.

Blackmon quoted the Rt. Rev. Desmond Tutu from his book God Has A Dream. Tutu wrote that a child of God has to truly understand that God loves everyone. God does not share our hatred of our enemies. God’s love is too great to be confined. “Our prejudices are absurdly ridiculous in God’s eyes,” Tutu said. 

“That is how God triumphs,” Blackmon said. “Jesus came to transform those who hurt and those who do the hurting. This is how we combat the evil ingrained in the structure. The Magnificat speaks truth and freedom because it tells of the inbreaking of Christ and its echo is heard wherever injustice is found.”

There is an echo of the Magnificat in every generation. She said, “It is found in Ferguson, in Staten Island, on a swing in Ohio, in schools in Pakistan. We will sing it even with knees on our necks.”

The tune for the song is not “The Star Spangled Banner,” or “America the Beautiful,” she said. “It is ‘Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us / Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us / Facing the rising sun of our new day begun / Let us march on ’till victory is won,’” she said. 

Mary’s Song came forward again when George Floyd was killed. “Mary’s Song is what the Fourth of July is. I will keep singing, I must sing, until freedom truly comes,” said Blackmon.

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president for religion and senior pastor of Chautauqua Institution, presided from the Hall of Christ. Joshua Stafford, interim organist for Chautauqua Institution, played the Tallman Tracker Organ. Michael Miller, a Chautauqua Opera Apprentice Artist, served as vocal soloist. The organ prelude, performed by Stafford, was “Fugue on the Magnificat,” by Johann Sebastian Bach. Miller sang the gathering hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The anthem was “How Great, O Lord, Is Thy Goodness,” by Julius Benedict, sung by Miller. The offertory hymn was “I Love to Tell the Story,” by Kate Hankey, sung by Miller. “Magnificat in D,” by Charles Villiers Stanford, was the offertory anthem with Miller as the soloist. Miller sang the choral response “Nunc Dimittis.” Stafford played “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” by John Phillip Sousa, for the postlude. This program is made possible by the Mr. and Mrs. William Uhler Follansbee Memorial Chaplaincy and the Robert D. Campbell Memorial Chaplaincy Fund.

Creating new traditions: Annual July 4 performance moves online with ‘relevant,’ healing program

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Mike Day waves his American flag to classic American tunes played by the Chautauqua Community Band during the 26th Annual Independence Day Concert on Wednesday, July 4, 2018. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/DAILY FILE PHOTO

Stuart Chafetz has had a lot on his mind. 

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Chafetz, DeSare and Jenkins

With the Fourth of July being commemorated during a global pandemic, an economic depression and a national reckoning of historic and persisting racism, Chafetz faced a daunting question: How do you celebrate a nation in turmoil?

“You make it relevant — nothing less,” Chafetz said.

Chautauqua’s reinvented Independence Day Celebration will take place at 5 p.m. EDT Saturday, July 4, on CHQ Assembly’s Video Platform. It features Chafetz, principal pops conductor for the Columbus and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestras, as well as returning soloist Capathia Jenkins and newcomer Tony DeSare, a jazz singer, pianist and songwriter. 

The evening’s setlist includes patriotic classics, such as the CSO’s socially distanced rendition of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” 

“We are going to end the program with that one because I think it will be nice for our audience to get to see some familiar faces on a day they look forward to so much,” Chafetz said. 

The program also includes a brand new addition, “CSO Forever.” The piece is a march Chafetz had arranged by Sam Shoup, while Chafetz shifted his focus to writing the lyrics with his wife, Ann Krinitsky, who is the music director of the Marin Symphony Youth Orchestra. Shoup is an arranger for the National Symphony Orchestra at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C, as well as the New York Pops Orchestra, Houston Symphony and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. 

DeSare will be singing the “Chautauqua-centric” piece, Chafetz said. As someone who hasn’t missed a summer at Chautauqua since 1996, Chafetz said creating the march brought him “joy that filled the absence.” 

“I am proud to say this is the first time I have been credited as a lyricist,” Chafetz said. “The goal is that it becomes a new tradition, just like popping the bags during the ‘1812 Overture.’ Everyone knows Chautauqua audiences are the best at singing and participating. I hope this brings them the joy it brought me.”

As a tribute to the state of New York, DeSare said he will sing Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” 

“Stuart, Capathia and I are all from New York,” DeSare said. “It has been hard to see all the state has gone through since it was hit so hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, a state all three of us love so much. We wanted to honor its strength, as I am sure those in Chautauqua want to as well.”

In addition, he will sing Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind.” 

“We wanted to provide variety, and I definitely think that’s what the audience is getting,” he said. 

For Jenkins, a Black musician and actor, this Independence Day celebration presented an opportunity she said she’s been “longing for.” Since the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during an arrest on March 25, Jenkins said she has been “fighting to get back into the light,” something she only knows how to do through song.

“There is a moment in the (recorded performance) where I just talk about how, with all of the civil unrest, I have been personally managing — managing a deep sadness, a frustration, an anger, a rage,” Jenkins said. “There have been days where I have just cried all day over the killing of unarmed Black people. My heart is just wrenched in a way I didn’t even know was possible.”

As a “healing balm” for “our souls and our spirits,” Jenkins said she will sing “Amazing Grace” and “What a Wonderful World.”

“Even with the unrest I just mentioned, I am deeply hopeful,” Jenkins said. “I am hopeful for our future. I am hopeful for our nation. As hard as it may be and as many scars as we may have, every time I have been able to stand with an orchestra for the Fourth of July, I am reminded that we live in a beautiful country. There is so much more ahead of us than what we have left behind us. I believe that. I believe that to survive. That belief is worth celebrating.” 

Chafetz said Jenkins’ contribution to both the performance is “valuable beyond what words allow.” 

“What she has to say regarding the moment in history we are in is extremely relevant and this summer, that is what this celebration needed to be — relevant to our country, relevant to our time,” he said. “I feel so fortunate to still be able to communicate that, the love of music and the love of the CSO, however brief it may be.”

Institution historian Schmitz to present “ChautauqWhat? A history of Chautauqua”

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Chautauqua Institution historian and archivist Jon Schmitz will commence the 2020 Heritage Lecture Series at 3:30 p.m. EDT Friday, July 3, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform with a presentation on the history of the Chautauqua movement.

In ChautauqWhat?: A historical overview of Chautauqua, Schmitz will share the 150-year history of the Chautauqua Movement and what makes the Institution unique. 

The movement began in 1874 with the establishment of the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly as an experiment in “vacation” learning that took place outside of school. It grew to the Chautauqua Institution that currently exists, fostering life-long learning, religion, art, and music. 

As the Institution grew, “Daughter Chautauquas” emerged across the country to replicate the western New York organization. At the peak of its popularity in 1915, an estimated 12,000 communities had hosted a Chautauqua. This practice died down in the following decades, but the Institution remained. 

Just as the Daughter Chautauquas brought programming into people’s communities across the country, the Institution is doing the same through its virtual 2020 season — a season that Schmitz called unprecedented.  

“(The pandemic) makes this the most exceptional season without question. There has never been a year before when the program was canceled,” Schmitz said. “It’s never been radically affected by wars, or pandemics or economic problems.”

When world events have interfered with programming in the past, it was small compared to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the 2020 season. For example, Schmitz said in years past the opera schedule may have been abbreviated, or the season cut short by a week. But, in-person programming has never been outright canceled.

Schmitz said he hopes that this historic year will allow the audience and community to reflect on what the Institution is and stands for. 

“The significance of it is that it will cause people to think more seriously about what Chautauqua is, what it is to them, what they want from it, and what they expect to have from it,” Schmitz said. “At what point is Chautauqua no longer Chautauqua?”

The season will see further programming from the Oliver Archives Center about Chautauqua’s traditions and history, with two films from 1923. Schmitz is welcoming three guests to the platform for lectures this season: author and public speaker Rick Swegan, Chautauqua Institution Archives Assistant Emálee Krulish, and North Carolina State University Professor Emeritus Gary Moore. 

Schmitz prides himself on the work of the Heritage Lecture Series, welcoming speakers who are truly passionate about speaking at the Institution. The speakers are not offered stipends, so there is no incentive other than a desire to speak at the Institution. 

“That tends to bring very good speakers. Speakers in the Heritage Lecture Series really make an effort to work up their presentations. They take it very seriously that they’re speaking,” Schmitz said.

One main draw for speakers is the audience they will be speaking to. Schmitz said that the Institution hosts “one of the best audiences in the world.” 

“Chautauqua audiences are attentive. They are patient. They are really very sophisticated,” Schmitz said. “It’s so strange to talk when you’re speaking to a Chautauquan audience. You’re speaking to people who are professors from well-established universities to people who are entirely new to the subject.”

The Heritage Lecture Series will premiere a new presentation at 3:30 p.m. EDT every Friday this season on CHQ Assembly.

Ray Chen to bring the golden age to the digital age with solo Bach performance

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Ray Chen was networking globally before it was cool.

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Chen

Chen, along with his extensive repertoire, has accumulated more than 400,000 followers on social media, including 236,000 Instagram followers and 131,000 YouTube subscribers

According to Vice President of Performing and Visual Arts Deborah Sunya Moore, that media presence is breaking boundaries for classical music, allowing the “golden age” to survive in the digital age, too. 

“I think it is just serendipitous that we had Ray scheduled for opening night,” Moore said. “I love that he has every bit of classical training and excellence that you could ever want, but that he’s doing it differently with his incredible following. So much of who he is, is about sharing the music.” 

Chen, a violinist, will debut his solo performance in “An Evening of Music and Conversation with Ray Chen” at 8:15 p.m. EDT Thursday, July 2, on CHQ Assembly’s Video Platform. Chen was originally scheduled for an opening night performance with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra before the Institution’s Board of Trustees decided to suspend in-person programming. 

In 2012, Chen told the South China Morning Post he developed his love for music at an early age thanks to support from his parents, who gifted him a violin on his fourth birthday.

“I began violin at the age of 4 simply because I had a love for the instrument,” Chen told the South China Morning Post. “My first teacher played a huge role in this; her entire family taught the Suzuki method and each week their home would turn into a music school of sorts.”

Four years later, he was invited to perform at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics’ opening celebration concert in Japan, where he realized he wanted his gift to be a lifelong career. “This was my first ‘tour’ overseas, and I remember thinking to myself at the time, ‘Man, I would love to do this for the rest of my life,’” Chen told the South China Morning Post. “It was a few more years later, however, that I made the conscious decision to rearrange my priorities and put violin first before everything else.” 

His decision to put violin at the forefront of his life paid off. Chen went on to win the National Youth Concerto Competition in Australia in 2002, the First Prize at the The Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists in 2008 and another First Prize at the Queen Elizabeth Competitions in 2009. 

“He is so accomplished, but throughout those accomplishments, he has always worked to create something for a community instead of just himself,” Moore said. 

Moore said Chen is “planning solo Bach” for Thursday’s performance. Chen will perform the entirety of his program live, while also incorporating Discord, an instant messaging and digital distribution platform used to create communities ranging from gamers to businesses. 

Even though the pieces will be from the canon of musical classics, Moore said the experience will be anything but traditional — perhaps even approaching “total anarchy.”

“He showed us Discord in a technical meeting and took us in and out of practice rooms where about 100 people were hanging out,” Moore said. “These classical music enthusiasts were there not only to support him, but to support each other. I am excited that it will be open so his Discord community can engage in his Chautauqua performance.”

When Chen is done with his performance, Moore will host a 20-minute Q-and-A, where she plans to have a “content-rich discussion” with the violinist. 

“I am guessing it is not just going to be about Bach — it’s going to be about artists in this time and how Ray is leading the way,” Moore said. “I am excited to hear from him how he sees this period continuing to evolve the field of classical music. The world has been scrambling to stay relevant during this time and it seems as though we need him in this moment.” 

This program is made possible by The Boyle Family Fund for the Performing Arts.

Rabbi Nate DeGroot links sacred to the science, covers climate issues in historically targeted communities compounded by COVID-19

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Climate change, the pandemic and systemic racism intersected in Rabbi Nate DeGroot’s lecture, “Tikkun Adam(ah): A Jewish Response to a World in Upheaval,” on Tuesday, June 30, on CHQ Assembly’s Video Platform. DeGroot was the first speaker for this season’s Interfaith Lecture Series, and for Week One — “Faith to Save the Earth” — after the Monday lecture was postponed due to technical difficulties.

DeGroot opened with how easy it is to misunderstand one person’s effect on the environment.

“At the end of the day, I can’t break the forest or raze a mountain,” DeGroot said.

But DeGroot cited the Arctic’s temperature rising to 100 degrees Fahrenheit a week prior, and that 19 of the last 20 years have been the hottest on record as reasons that people need to understand their effect on nature.

“And so it is — clearly, I believe — past time to rethink our relationship to nature,” DeGroot said.

DeGroot serves as associate director and the spiritual and program director of Hazon Detroit, a city branch within an international Jewish environmental organization that encourages the Jewish community to reconnect to nature through its initiatives. In Hazon Detroit’s case, DeGroot said that it also serves a supporting role for the city’s Black and Native communities. 

During the Q-and-A, DeGroot said these communities have been underserved in the past and present due to white flight, including the Jewish community leaving for the suburbs after the 1967 Detroit rebellion. As a result, Hazon is reconnecting with those communities left behind, which have created self-sufficient networks like community gardens. 

DeGroot said that with a live audience, he often asks questions aloud for people to answer in real time. He did it anyway and asked his audience to answer to their screen as if they were watching “Jeopardy” while he called on imaginary audience members.

“What is the Hebrew word for nature?”

Whoever answered got it right on the first try — “teva.” The last two questions were harder to answer for his imaginary live audience.

“Teva” was first recorded in Jewish thought in the 12th century. It is never used in the Old Testament while describing creation, the Garden of Eden, or Noah’s Ark, nor used in the Psalms.

Jewish texts had no word for nature until then, because at the center of Judaism, “there was no distinction between God and the natural world,” DeGroot said.

No word could contain the eternal, but Judaism revolves around “intimate relationships with nature,” its whims and its weather patterns.

Agricultural seasons frame Jewish holidays. The setting of the sun until only three stars are in the sky marks the end of Shabbat, or Sabbath. Early prayers for rain were paired with dancing and holding willow branches and palm fronds.

Nature was only a “garb” in which God was dressed.

“(By this definition) how we treat nature is a direct reflection of how we treat God, and perhaps vice versa,” DeGroot said. “If God and nature cannot be separated, then every toxic fume that gets puffed into the air is filling God’s lungs with smoke.”

DeGroot quoted the fifth book of the Torah as a warning of what happens when people deny connection between faith and nature.

“If we follow the Commandments, then Deuteronomy says ‘The rains will fall in their season, our harvests will be abundant, our cattle will have ample food to eat and we shall be sated,’” DeGroot said. “But if we stray, and worship idols, and profane and forget what is most sacred in this world, God’s anger will flare up against us. Until the skies above our heads turn to copper, and the earth below our feet becomes iron, the rain of our land will be dust and sand will drop on us from the sky until we are wiped out.”

DeGroot clarified that this was not a “prescriptive” solution from God, but a natural outcome of people’s actions — or lack thereof.

“This is not God punishing us for straying; rather, these lines are descriptive,” DeGroot said. “The natural result of our own careless and callous actions — which, by the way, much like warnings from the latest U.N. Climate Report — teach us that when we neglect the sacred, the sacred will just as quickly neglect us.”

Linking science to the sacred, DeGroot suggested there is a new way to take God for granted.

“When we live outside the right relationship with the natural world, and puff toxic fumes and spew deadly toxins and etch the Earth with oil, we curse ourselves,” DeGroot said. “Is this not what it means to take God’s name in vain in a 21st-century context? And when we hurt nature, the Deuteronomy text makes clear that not only are we hurting God, but we are also hurting ourselves.”

DeGroot called for a Tikkun Adamah. Tikkun is a healing, while Adamah refers to “the dust of the earth” from which God formed Adam.

“Today we are in need of what in Hebrew is called a Tikkun, a kind of mending, fixing, repairing,” DeGroot said. “Tikkun Adam, a healing of the self, and Tikkun Adamah, a healing of earth.”

DeGroot said climate change has compounded recent events like the coronavirus pandemic and “other pandemics” of systemic racism, extractive capitalism and white supremacy.

COVID-19 specifically proved to DeGroot that the world is interconnected, and as a result, demands people care for each other.

“As a resident of Detroit, one thing was clear: that however bad COVID was going to get generally, Detroit would be hit harder than most because the largest majority of Detroit — the largest majority-Black city in the country, like the residents of many other industrial rust belt cities and urban communities — have seen their neighborhoods systematically divested from for well over 50 years,” DeGroot said.

He noted the breakdown of basic infrastructure, systems and support networks coinciding with white flight in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which left the remaining communities with little support.

“(This) means residents now are left severely lacking in what many of us probably assume are basic services, and (they) are therefore far more susceptible to COVID,” DeGroot said.

Finding healthy food and going to the hospital is more difficult due to the lack of public transportation. Water shut off in thousands of homes prevents families from being able to practice good hygiene or stay hydrated. Those who become sick might fear going to the hospital because they can’t afford treatment or are turned away when they most need care. 

Detroit also has had the worst broadband connection of all cities in the United States since 2015, according to the FCC. Detroit public school students suffer from the school system’s lack of funding, so continuing education without the necessary technology proves “basically impossible,” DeGroot said, while more well-off students continue unphased.

Detroit also has the highest rates of asthma in the state of Michigan.

“This is just one example of the many underlying health conditions caused by environmental racism that generations of Detroiters face,” DeGroot said. “Detroit has the highest Black population of any city in the U.S., (and) suffered from the third-most coronavirus deaths in this country.”

One pastor who Hazon Detroit works with has lost 14 family members to the coronavirus.

“None of this is by accident,” DeGroot said. “But rather, this is what happens when people put profit over populace.”

DeGroot told the story of the Tower of Babel, the second example in Jewish texts where humans challenged the divine. According to midrash writings (or narrative interpretations of the Torah and the books of prophets) as the tower to reach God grew higher, it took a year for someone to climb up to add a precious brick to the top. When someone would fall to their death by accident, “bricks became more precious than people” and those below mourned the ruined bricks instead of the person who carried it.

“It is not a sin to build,” DeGroot said. “It is a sin to build towards a perverted cause, to build towards any vision other than the holiness of life and the celebration of the sacred.”

DeGroot likened current affairs with the sin of Babel.

“Our country’s reality of this lived midrash began with genocide and the forced misplacement of Native people, and was built by the hands and ingenuity of Black people taken from their homeland and brought to these shores to be brutally exploited as property,” he said. “… While the circumstances have changed over the years, the structural underpinnings of our society have not.”

DeGroot quoted an opinion article by Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, the North America Director of 350.org which supports anti-fossil fuel organizers and campaigners in the United States and Canada, titled “If you care about the planet, you must dismantle white supremacy.”

She wrote that communities getting hit the hardest by COVID-19 and climate change are also affected by over-policing, incarceration and state-sanctioned violence, which includes “sacrifice zones” of neighborhoods near toxic factories and fumes that have increased multi-generational rates of asthma and other health conditions in these communities.

This adds a grim familiarity to the death-throe pleas of ‘I can’t breathe,’ made by both George Floyd and Eric Garner while they were choked to death by police in Minneapolis and Staten Island, respectively,” O’Laughlin wrote. “… Are you willing to hold accountable all of the systems built off white supremacy — from the fossil fuel industry to racist policing to the prison industrial complex — in defense of the planet? Are you willing to interrogate your complicity in the systems built on white supremacy and commit to dismantling it?”

DeGroot likened this to the exodus of the formerly enslaved Israelites from Pharaoh’s Egypt.

“According to the Midrash, the Israelites’ true and lasting liberation comes not only from the physical leaving of Egypt, but from the Israelites’ emphatic refusal to no longer worship the false idols of Egyptian rule,” DeGroot said.

DeGroot ended with one last call for Tikkun Adam and Tikkun Adamah — the healing of the soul of the people as well as the soil — to soften hearts enough to enact physical change; end false gods of extraction; and follow leaders of the new movement when the world reaches the other side of this moment.

“Nothing less will do,” DeGroot said.

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