Under Rossen Milanov’s Baton for Last Time This Season, CSO and Michelle Johnson to Perform Complex Strauss Compositions

Music Director and conductor Rossen Milanov directs the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra as they play, “DANCE,” by Anna Clyne alongside cellist Inbal Segev as the first song of the, “Mahler 4,” concert on Thursday, Aug 15, 2019 in the Amphitheater. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the penultimate orchestra concert of the season, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will perform two philosophical pieces.

At 8:15 p.m. Saturday, August 17 in the Amphitheater, the CSO and soprano Michelle Johnson will perform German composer Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” a series of pieces that Strauss wrote in the last year of his life. The concert will end with Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), a tone poem based on the novel of the same name by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

“Four Last Songs,” titled and published after Strauss’ death, is made up of “Frühling” (Spring), “September,” “Beim Schlafengehen” (When Falling Asleep) and “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset). Each song uses the text of a different German poem.

This is CSO Conductor and Music Director Rossen Milanov’s last concert of the season — his fifth with the CSO. He said “Four Last Songs” is a unique experience.

“It changes you, when you hear ‘Four Last Songs,’ ” Milanov said. “Particularly the last song, which deals with saying farewell. It asks, ‘How do we wrap up everything that we have? How do we summarize our life? How do we define the important things that we have done?’ ”

Each song features a soaring soprano voice and dense orchestration. Milanov said Johnson, who first performed with the CSO last season, suggested the piece.

“We had a conversation, (and) I asked her, ‘What is your dream to sing?’ ” Milanov said. “And she said, ‘My dream is to perform Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs.’ I said, ‘We’ll do it.’ ”

Milanov, who has worked with Johnson on several other projects, said he is looking forward to this collaborative concert.

“She has an amazing voice, a generous heart and is one of the most amazing singers I’ve worked with,” Milanov said. “I’m so much looking forward to doing this concert.”

Johnson will be performing “Four Last Songs” for the first time in her career. She said she is excited for both the piece and the concert as a whole.

“This is my first time singing these four last songs from Strauss, and for me it’s a bucket list kind of deal — to be able to have such a fantastic orchestra to collaborate with is insane, and I love working with Maestro Milanov,” Johnson said.

To Johnson, “Four Last Songs” takes its source material — poetry about death — to a peaceful place.

“The poetry is about death, but Strauss pictures and paints it in such a beautiful way that it makes you not fear death, but accept it for the beauty of what your life was,” Johnson said. “It makes you accept that all things come to an end.”

Johnson said she appreciates “Four Last Songs” not just for its lyrics, but Strauss’ balancing of voice and orchestra.

“It’s just so gloriously written that the voice just soars through the density of the orchestra,” Johnson said. “I can’t wait to sing it. I’m on pins and needles just waiting.”

The concert will end with “Also sprach Zarathustra,” inspired by Nietsche’s book, which explores the concept of eternal recurrence — that the universe repeats itself across time and space and will continue to do so forever.

Strauss’ piece follows the title character, Zarathustra, through selected chapters and plot points. The piece is known for its complexity and was used in the score of the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

To Milanov, the piece is an excellent final note for his fifth season.

“The piece is a sonic celebration of symphonic writing,” Milanov said. “It’s powerful, it’s sublime and it’s very inspiring to listen to. For my last concert (of the season), it was a fitting choice for the orchestra to do something so complex, so important and so impressive.”

Latinx Scholar Miguel De La Torre to Preach Week Nine


Scholar-activist Miguel De La Torre, who serves as a professor of social ethics and Latinx studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, will preach at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday Ecumenical Service of Worship and Sermon in the Amphitheater, and serve as Week Nine chaplain. The title of his Sunday sermon will be “Was Jesus a Racist?”

“The danger facing academic scholars is the temptation of becoming intellectual elites, pontificating from ivy towers that are disconnected from the everyday lucha, the everyday struggle faced by the majority of the world’s inhabitants,” De La Torre wrote on his blog, “Our Lucha.” “Those of us who claim to be scholar-activists, radically engage issues concerning social justice from the margins of society attempting to overcome this disconnect; not with the hubris of believing we are right and those who disagree are wrong; but with the humility that from the perspective of those who suffer political, economic, and social oppression we can commit, in solidarity, to seeing the abuse, searching for answers, and stressing action – praxis that can lead toward social and spiritual liberation.”

De La Torre will share his faith journey at the 5 p.m. Sunday Vespers in the Hall of Philosophy. Monday through Friday, he will preach at the 9:15 a.m. Ecumenical Services in the Amp. His topics include: “Meeting Jesus in the Wilderness,” “Remember the Sabbath,” “Marrying Down,” “What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?” and “Embracing Hopelessness.”

De La Torre was born in Cuba months before the Castro Revolution; his family came to the United States as refugees when he was 6 months old. At 19, he started a real estate company in Miami, and became active in local politics, running once for the Florida House of Representatives. 

His real estate company was a success, but after 13 years, De La Torre dissolved his firm — inspired by Luke 18 and the “Rich Young Ruler” — and attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Divinity. During his seminary training, he served as pastor to a rural congregation. Lacking opportunities within the church structure due to ethnic discrimination, however, De La Torre continued his theological training and obtained a doctorate. The focus of his academic pursuit was social ethics within contemporary U.S. thought, specifically how religion affects race, class and gender oppression. He specializes in applying a social scientific approach to Latinx religiosity within the United States, liberation theologies in the Caribbean and Latin America, and postmodern/postcolonial social theory.

A prolific contemporary Latinx religion scholar, De La Torre has authored several hundred articles and over 32 books, including the award-winning Reading the Bible from the Margins, Santería: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins; and the two-volume Encyclopedia on Hispanic American Religious Cultures

De La Torre is a former director of the American Academy of Religion, and served as co-chair of the Academy’s Ethics Section. He served as president of the Society of Christian Ethics in 2012, and co-founded the Society of Race, Ethnicity and Religion, as well as the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion.

De La Torre received a Fulbright Specialists Scholarship allowing him to teach at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia during the summer of 2012. He has also taught classes at Johannesburg University in South Africa in 2014, and Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, in 2015. He recently received a Louisville Institute grant that will allow him to do research in Cuba, for an upcoming book on the political theology of José Martí.

Bestor Plaza to be Again Transformed into Food Festival

Chautauquans fill Bestor Plaza at lunchtime during the Chautauqua Institution Food & Film Festival Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR.

With summer drawing to a close and school and work obligations looming from the sidelines, Week Nine at Chautauqua Institution is usually a bit in flux.

“Week Nine has always been hit-or-miss for us,” said Vanessa Weinert, the Institution’s director of marketing and analytics. “We’ve had very successful Week Nines but … we wanted to add something a little different to make it more attractive to different audiences.”

In 2017, this desire birthed the first Chautauqua Food Festival, which returns for its third year on Sunday.

From noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, August 18 and noon to 2 p.m. and 4 to 8 p.m. Monday, August 19 through Friday, August 19 Bestor Plaza will be transformed into a culinary landscape featuring more than 13 food and drink vendors and four food trucks.

“Every year, we’ve tried something a little different to see what the right model is for us,” Weinert said.

This year, the large tent formerly used for culinary demonstrations will be turned into the Athenaeum Hotel Beverage Tent and Lounge. Ottomans and cocktail tables will be provided for Chautauquans to rest, get out of the sun or take cover in case of bad weather.

“We want to focus more on people actually eating and enjoying themselves versus the demonstration side,” Weinert said.

She is excited for the return of the “Ultimate Wine and Beer Tasting” on Sunday, a favorite from the 2017 festival.

By purchasing a $25 ticket, Chautauquans will receive a souvenir glass they can use to sample beer and wine from more than nine vendors, including Angry Orchard, 21 Brix Winery and Ellicottville Brewing Company.

Heirloom Restaurant will host a Bavarian beer garden in the plaza serving sauerkraut, brats and soft pretzels.

This will be 21 Brix Winery’s third year participating in the festival.

The family-run farm and winery is located in Portland, New York.

Chelsea Lapp, the winery’s projects manager, said although she grew up in the area, she had never been involved with the Institution until the festival.

“It’s a great market,” she said. “The Food Festival itself draws a lot of traffic, and I think it’s awesome that (the Institution) invited local vendors to be a part of the day, especially because a lot of the people who show up to be vendors are from the area and have never participated in Chautauqua, so it’s a great time and place to get our names out there.”

The festival has opened doors for further collaborations between local businesses and the Institution; 21 Brix now sells their wine at the Athenaeum Hotel.

Tickets for the “Ultimate Tasting” will be on sale in-person starting at 11 a.m. on Sunday. Due to high demand, Weinert recommends Chautauquans purchase tickets in advance by calling 716-357-6250.

All other food and beverage purchases throughout the week will be covered through the exchange of $2 food tickets that can be purchased around the plaza.

On Monday and Friday, scientifically minded (or simply hungry) Chautauquans can watch two food-science demonstrations put on in partnership with Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center. Free samples of frozen s’mores or liquid nitrogen slushies will be provided.

Back by popular demand, the Carnegie Science Center will also be holding the second Chautauqua Murder Mystery Cocktail hour from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Athenaeum Hotel Parlor.

“It’s a classic whodunit-style event,” Weinert said. “And there is obviously a science component to it, so there’s a ‘CSI’ part where you test the evidence.”

Tickets are available at for the 21-and-up event.

For Chautauquans in search of a more traditional culinary experience, chefs Ross Warhol, Heirloom’s own Edward Work and Ben Shropshire will serve five-course tasting menus at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Thursday and Friday evenings in the Heirloom Restaurant at the Athenaeum Hotel.

On Thursday, Work will partner with Angry Orchard to pair two of his courses with limited-edition specialty ciders not sold in stores.

Weinert is excited for what she expects to be the Institution’s most popular Food Festival yet.

“Every year it’s getting stronger and stronger,” she said.

Tarana J. Burke Discusses Me Too Movement’s Role in Shifting Power and Privilege

Founder of the “Me Too” Movement, Tarana Burke speaks about how the movement got started by saying “Community problems need a community response and that’s what the “Me Too” Movement is,” during the morning lecture on Friday, August 16, 2019 in the Amphitheater.

Tarana J. Burke is a survivor.

She is also an activist, advocate and founder of the Me Too Movement, in which over 20 million people have come forward as survivors, too. Rooted in Burke’s own story is a belief that has sparked empathy throughout a nation: Healing isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.

Burke spoke in conversation with Emily F. Morris, vice president of marketing and communications and chief brand officer, at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater, closing Week Eight, “Shifting Global Power.”

The origin story of the Me Too Movement began in 2005, when Burke was working in Selma, Alabama, as the co-founder of Just Be Inc., a youth organization focused on the health, well-being and wholeness of young women of color.

“In that work, I realized that the girls that we were serving needed a different kind of attention,” Burke said. “It just felt like, if we didn’t make an intervention at some point early in their lives, then they wouldn’t have the foundation of worthiness.”

With Just Be, Burke wasn’t just hearing stories of survival from girls in the community, she was witnessing their stories unfold firsthand.

In 2006, Burke created a MySpace page so her Just Be efforts could have a place on the internet. But as she was working online and in person to heal those around her, Burke was also working on her own healing from the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. That healing process started long before the idea of Me Too was even conceived, when a “seed was planted in her.”

The seed was planted in her childhood from the literature of black feminists, like Maya Angelou, whose 1969 work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings changed everything for Burke. Angelou’s recorded experiences introduced Burke to her first fellow survivor.

“It was the first time I encountered another person that had experienced child sexual abuse,” Burke said. “I didn’t have an understanding as a survivor; I never had survivor language, I didn’t grow up feeling like a victim or a survivor. You spend a lot of your time feeling complicit in your own grief. The guilt that I carried was for what I had done to contribute to the abuse.”

In one of Burke’s high school English classes, her teacher played a video of Angelou performing “Phenomenal Woman,” the first time Burke saw Angelou and heard her voice. As Angelou’s work had done before, listening to that poem changed Burke — but this time, in a new way.

“My understanding of what I had experienced and what she had experienced, was that the connection we had was wrapped around trauma; it was that we had a shared trauma,” Burke said. “She knew what it was to feel what I felt, she knew what it was to hide that.”

What Burke learned about Angelou’s healing was that she had mastered a way of making the world see her as someone “other than who she truly was.”

“When I saw her read the poem, it was this moment of shock because I thought, ‘I believe her,’ ” Burke said. “I believed every word she said; I saw the smile, I saw her standing regally, I saw her being confident and I thought, ‘How is this possible?’ ”

Burke questioned those possibilities because she had dedicated her life to being the “best possible child,” the only way she knew how to mask the parts of her history she wanted to leave behind.

“It was about trying to be perfect,” Burke said. “I had perfect grades; I was a perfect student; I was a perfect athlete; I did not get in trouble. I followed the rules because I thought, ‘I have to do everything right, because if I don’t, then they’ll see, then they’ll know.’ ”

Ultimately, what Angelou planted in Burke was a series of questions: “Can a body that holds this kind of pain, also hold joy? Is it possible? Do I deserve it? How do I get it?”

As Burke reflected on her community in Selma, it occurred to her that no one would plant those questions if she wasn’t the one to do it herself. So, at 14 years old, Burke started her work as an activist.

“At the same time that I am, from an interpersonal standpoint, trying to understand what healing looks like for me and what it could look like for these girls, I also was very confused about why we were not standing up as a community to push back against what these children were experiencing,” she said.

In those experiences, Burke learned that community problems require a community response. According to Burke, a vast majority of sexual abusers are family members and people familiar to the survivor. Particularly with black girls who are hypersexualized by society, these “morally wrong” relationships result in multiple layers of oppression, which Burke said people are not paying enough attention to.

“The thing is, it’s about race in some ways, but it’s also about class and economics,” she said.

And the loss of survivors’ stories is not accidental, as they are often overshadowed by the stories of their abusers — for example, in the case of Jeffrey Epstein, an American financier who was charged with sex trafficking of a minor and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, who recently died by suicide in prison while awaiting trial.

“We have heard his name ad nauseam for the last couple of weeks, we have heard all about the money that he made, all about the powerful men he flew around in his airplanes, all about the ways he came to wealth and who he was associated with — what about the girls?” Burke asked. “The part that drives me batty about the way we talk about this moment, is that we don’t realize we are building this on the backs of survivors, we are trading on the labor of survivors for salacious headlines and gossip, and it’s really disgusting.”

The weight of the movement’s conversations “on the backs of the survivors,” Burke said, has everything to do with power and privilege. And just because there will never be a culture without hierarchy, she said, that doesn’t mean society must continue to operate as if hierarchies are the only influencing social structure.

“I do think, though, that we can shift culture in such a way that people can understand that because you have power and privilege, doesn’t mean you have to abuse it,” Burke said. “The building blocks of sexual violence are around the abuse of power and privilege.”

As much as those building blocks are a result of power and privilege, they’re also a result of systems. Harvey Weinstein, for example, “could not do what he did over the time period he did it, without being a part of a larger system that people want to protect.”

“You have to talk about systems and dismantling systems, and one of the systems that upholds sexual violence is capitalism,” Burke said. “You can look at R. Kelly, or you can look at Harvey Weinstein, but there had to be people who were more invested in what he could provide, in what he represented. He generated millions and millions of dollars, and the fact that he had the power to generate that money meant more than any one person’s humanity.”

When it comes to changing the society in which sexual violence thrives, Burke said the challenge can’t be met by an individual, given “an individual didn’t get us here.” And while the violence may not disappear, action can be inspired, like when her efforts sparked 15 million people to engage in hashtag #MeToo in 24 hours.

The Me Too Movement that had been around since 2005, went viral in 24 hours in 2017, when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted for women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to reply with “Me too.” Burke recalled the Sunday morning the hashtag went viral. As soon as she wrapped her head around what was going on, Burke said her first feeling was panic, mostly because “the white people got my stuff.”

“Who was going to believe that a 44-year-old black woman from the Bronx started this work?” she said.

Burke believes her work took off “by the grace of God.” Since she knew her purpose was serving others from the age of 14, Burke had a moment while looking through the hashtag when she asked herself: “Tarana, are you going to be who you said you are?”

What she saw through the hashtag was thousands of people pouring their hearts out, thousands of people talking about the worst thing they’ve ever experienced, on the internet. As those stories were shared, Burke knew there would be consequences: Some people might post something that no one would “like,” and they would feel terrible; some people would be triggered; some would have nightmares; some would wake up and not know what to do with their new realities — all because of the conversation she started.

“I think, honestly, the failing of the field that does work around sexual violence was everybody was a deer caught in the headlights, and nobody responded to the survivors,” Burke said.

In the midst of the millions using the hashtag, headlines were focused on everything but the survivors, Burke said.

“We have literally turned our backs on these people who raised their hands to say, ‘This thing has affected my life and finally, I get to say something; finally, I get to open up my heart; finally, this thing I have been holding in the pit of my stomach for 30 years, I get to let it out,’ ” Burke said. “And then people walked away from them. It’s horrible.”

Burke thought the movement would quickly lose momentum, but as more and more powerful figures were held accountable, she was put in the spotlight to comment on their actions. Burke said her responses were repetitive, until Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 testimony against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who she said sexually assaulted her while the two were teenagers at a house party in Maryland.

It was a pivotal moment because it proved to Burke just “how little” people knew about sexual violence and survivors. As people made comments about how Ford’s testimony “could have been better” if she just remembered more and hesitated less, Burke saw the way the portrayal of survivors in television and pop culture has affected the real-life figures they represent.

“I was first sexually abused when I was 6 years old,” Burke said. “I am 45 years old, and that means I have spent 39 years trying to forget. I have spent every day of the last 39 years wanting to know less and less and less of the horrific things that were done to my child body. I don’t want to remember. God bless her for not remembering everything — that’s how we survive.”

The hashtag took off globally as well, particularly in India and Sweden. And just as it is not confined in the United States, Burke said it is crucial to note that it is not a women’s movement, either.

“Men’s first role in the Me Too Movement is as survivors,” Burke said. “We have to acknowledge and make space for men to be survivors first, before we ask them to change behavior, before we talk about them as perpetrators.”

More generally, Burke wants people to move away from a “survivor versus perpetrator, crime versus punishment world” — instead, she wants people to focus on harm and harm reduction.

“When you harm a person, you have to be accountable for the harm that you’ve caused,” she said. “There has to be an examination of where these things come from, and if we don’t make space for it, we will never get to a different model of it.”

The bottom line: Forgiveness is vital if people are to move forward.

“There is always room for forgiveness,” Burke said. “I think that forgiveness doesn’t mean that you always come back. Sometimes, forgiveness is about acknowledging that the other person is a human being, forgiving them in your heart, but removing them from your space.”

Hello Mr. President: Children’s School Takes Colonnade



“I’m from Santa Monica, I took a Jet Blue and it went really fast. Now I’m at Chautauqua,” 3-year-old Rex Bulette explained to Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill. Rex was just one of many Children’s School students to talk to the president Wednesday.

In a field trip organized by Children’s School Director Kit Trapasso, students traveled around Chautauqua throughout Week Eight to get their passports stamped. The halls of the Colonnade were packed on Wednesday, as students spoke to Institution administrators and staff, asking them about their jobs and seeing the inner workings of Chautauqua. 

“I love it when the youngest Chautauquans come,” Hill said. “Chautauqua is fueled by these kids becoming adults, so it’s always fun to see them at the beginning of their journey.”

Students left employees with smiles in every office they visited, from operations to finance and program offices. Cycling through the halls, the 3- to 6-year-olds offered hugs and high fives to everyone walking by. The students were excited for their field trip, as they learned and brought smiles to the Colonnade.

Lyrica Baroque to Showcase Era’s ‘Hidden Gems’ in Recital

Lyrica Baroque

Chautauqua’s season is quickly coming to an end, and the Saturday chamber music series is going out in style — Baroque style.

At 4 p.m. Saturday, August 17 in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, mixed instrumental and vocal ensemble Lyrica Baroque will perform in the final concert of this summer’s Chautauqua Chamber Music Resident Artist Series.

The members of the group are oboist Jaren Atherholt, violinist Eric Silberger, cellist Daniel Lelchuk, pianist Bradley Moore, soprano Sarah Jane McMahon, tenor Paul Groves and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra bassoonist Benjamin Atherholt. The group is based in New Orleans, a city mostly known for its jazz tradition, but also the place where America’s first documented opera took place.

“The history of opera in New Orleans is really, really cool,” said Jaren Atherholt, founder of the ensemble. “So I like that the group can honor that and spread the word about that. … Not only is there a rich operatic history, but also classical music and symphonic and chamber music.”

The Baroque era was characterized by its grandeur and attention to detail: the gold palatial splendor of Versailles; the extravagant paintings of Peter Paul Rubens and Caravaggio; the ornate compositions of Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel — all were part of this time period in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The ensemble is so named because when it first formed, the group performed Bach’s many cantatas, composed in the Baroque era to be sung alongside instrumentation. Those cantatas have plenty of repertoire for winds, strings and voice. Today’s concert, however, will focus on many lesser-known pieces.

“The point of this program was ‘hidden gems of the Baroque era,’ ” Atherholt said.

The show will begin with Handel’s “As Steals the Morn,” one of Atherholt’s personal favorites.

“It’s like two duets in one piece, because the oboe and the bassoon act as the soprano and tenor in the instrumental accompaniment, and then the soprano and tenor sing,” she said. “It’s gorgeous.”

The program also includes several arias: “Quel nouveau ciel” (What a new sky), an aria for tenor, from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s French opera Orphée et Eurydice; “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Let me cry), a soprano aria from Handel’s Rinaldo; two arias from Handel’s Semele — “Endless pleasure,” for soprano, and “Wherever you walk,” for tenor — and “Love too frequently betrayed,” from Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress.

Several of these arias, such as Gluck’s and Stravinsky’s, are pieces rarely heard in performance outside their original contexts.

To finish the program, the ensemble will perform a 30-minute, instrumental piece: Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio, for piano, violin and cello.   

“That’s a masterpiece in and of itself,” Atherholt said. “It’s just stunning — French Ravel at its finest.”

Though every member of the group will not perform every piece, they all collaborated in putting together the program so that there are pieces that will give each voice and instrument a chance to shine. Lyrica Baroque is on the larger side when it comes to chamber ensembles, and unique in that it combines instrumental and vocal performance — something the Resident Artist Series has not yet seen.

“I love seeing hard work coming to fruition,” Atherholt said. “Everything about the ensemble and the work we do together feels unique and inspired, and I really like that.”

The group has never performed at Chautauqua before, but Atherholt said she is excited to meet — and hopefully inspire — a new audience.

“I think it will be such an uplifting afternoon experience,” she said.

Guest Critic: Paul Taylor Dance Company and CSO Performance Concludes Seminal Residency

Review by Jane Vranish:

It was good to see such a monumental pairing of music and movement last Saturday night at the Amphitheater, a match that became epic in so many ways.

There hasn’t been such a grand partnership within recent memory, so difficult, yet ultimately satisfying for both the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Even the lighting design, projected onto the organ pipes above the stage, added to the imposing nature of the program.

The three works each had their own epic angle as well, Concertiana being the final work Taylor choreographed before he died Aug. 29, last year; Dust, inspired by a friend who was deaf and mute; and the gargantuan Leopold Stokowski arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in Promethean Fire

But there was a time when Taylor himself was not considered grand. He engendered disrespect from critics who thought his choreography carried little artistic and mental weight. Time has proved them wrong, and a program like this is a living, breathing example.

Concertiana referred to Eric Ewazen’s Concerto for Violin and Strings, which premiered in 2000, by St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, currently the live music partner for PTDC in New York City. To further the connection, St. Luke’s concertmaster, Krista Bennion Feeney, performed the virtuosic solo with a sweeping panache, the orchestra in swift pursuit.

The piece itself was a pictorial scrapbook of the Taylor choreographic style, full of sweet memories for the audience. Those who had seen the company performance at the Amphitheater on Aug. 7 could see trademark snippets like the curvilinear arms of “Aureole” and the sitting spins and cradle lifts from Esplanade.

Was this a nod to the creative process, the need for the choreographer to focus despite the numerous distractions that surround it? One could see lovely solos and duets to savor, but broken by a flurry of group activity consuming the stage.

Then there were many linear elements, such as repetitive jumping and running across the back, that periodically drew the eye upstage. On closer inspection, Taylor was making minimal adjustments, like turning one dancer around mid-stage and varying the speed of it all.

Yet each of those seemingly minute details was lovingly executed, making it apparent that the dancers will always cherish this work.

Dust (1977) posed a number of questions because it was a piece full of conflicting emotions. The score itself was reflective of Francis Poulenc’s youthful glee in its quirky, almost haphazard changes of mood and rhythm. Schuyler Robinson took on the harpsichord solo, often a mad dash through a musical obstacle course, with superb athletic abundance. Again, the orchestra was in full support mode, led with customary authority by conductor Rossen Milanov.

Inspired by those with disabilities, the movement could have been perplexing to the viewer. With the performers clad in nude bodysuits embellished by “lesions,” it became monkey-like, awkwardly itchy, painfully grabbing, with parts of the body deliberately askew. One section saw a woman overwhelmed by “blind” dancers, something that subsequently affected her as well. It sometimes invoked a chuckle or two, followed by a momentary sense of shame. 

Dust then began to fall apart with an outburst of acrobatics and crazed runs. All of a sudden, the dancers looked up as a bright white light bathed the stage, perhaps in reference to the thick rope that dangled at the side. Although they never acknowledged it, the rope could have been a symbol of reaching beyond one’s limits, whether physical, mental or personal.

That connected in some ways to Promethean Fire (2002). In the piece, many have seen the aftermath of 9/11, with airplane lifts and architectural groupings, although Taylor himself denied this. Clad in somber black unitards, the dancers evoked the pace of a city as they scurried through ever-changing patterns. One ended up in a giant letter “S” where, one by one, the dancers threw themselves to the ground.

Nonetheless it will remain an everlasting gift to the resilience of New Yorkers and specifically this company. For at the center of Promethean Fire was artistic director/dancer/historian Michael Novak, whose eyes burned bright with hope and purpose as he rose from the “rubble” section of the choreography. It was as if he was shouldering the responsibility to carry the company forward into the future.

Yet all of the Taylor dancers will undoubtedly participate, for they all harbored what might be termed a “secret joy.” It was one that oozed from Taylor’s impressive choreography, one that they subsequently shared on stage and one that permeated Chautauqua all week long. In the end, it was apparent that this was a singular event, which even company manager Bridget Welty admitted was “special.”

In other words, this residency has not been seen, nor will it be seen anywhere else in the near future, although it should be for all benefits that it bestows.

This seminal week took Chautauquans on a meaningful journey, much like an extensive Picasso exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art would, enabling the community to appreciate this modern master.

Maybe Promethean Fire was not just about the America we all want, but also about a company that will give us what we all need.

Jane Vranish is a former dance critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and continues there as a contributing writer. Her stories can also be read on the dance blog “Dance Currents” at She is an assistant professor of dance at Point Park University.

Paul Taylor Dance Company Residency Celebrates Choreographer’s Legacy



Dance fans are always fascinated at what lurks behind the curtain, what goes into peeling away the onion layers of a performance. The Paul Taylor Dance Company may have uncorked two stellar performances at the Amphitheater during Week Seven at Chautauqua Institution, but it unlocked so many other mysteries through its recent five-day residency, that it begs a look back.

As it turned out, these dancers not only understood the choreography, they could also talk about their art. In fact, newly minted artistic director Michael Novak acted as if he had been doing this for years, even though he professed to be innately “shy.”

He was quite eloquent in sharing how he came to be in the group, how he quickly sensed that the company felt like “home,” in a talk for Chautauqua Dance Circle at Smith Wilkes Hall, and how Taylor personally chose him as a replacement, something that the dance great perhaps foresaw, because he passed away only months later. The passing of the proverbial baton took place at Taylor’s apartment, usually a location for personal corrections or, heaven forbid, a dismissal. The 35-year-old company member was momentarily at a loss for words. So Taylor responded, “You heard me.”

Novak was the face of the company in two mini-performances. The first took place at the Strohl Art Center, where he presented a video, then connected Taylor to a pair of major contemporary artists — Robert Rauschenberg’s iconic outfits for 3 Episodes, with the dancers covered from head to toe in dark gray unitards and hoods with circular mirrors that reflected off the walls, and Alex Katz’s color-blocked unitards for Journey — all in 45 minutes. In addition to being highly informative, it was remarkable to see the dancers performing with no restraints — full out, they say, as if they were dancing for the Queen of England.

While those two works were previews of what was to come at the Amphitheater (Episodes) and the company’s upcoming fall season at Lincoln Center (Journey), the other mini-performance at the Carnahan-Jackson Dance Studios provided the reverse.

Most of the dance-specific audience — students, staff and fans — had seen the works from afar in the Amphitheater. But the tasty snippets of Aureole, Junction and Piazzolla Caldera (even though the dancers wore black rehearsal clothes) gave everyone a chance to see the emotional and physical layers of Taylor’s choreographic structure as if under a microscope. This was an arduous mini-program, performed at full tilt up to that point. But they capped it with a male quartet from Cloven Kingdom, a work where the men would wear tuxedos in performance, yet show an almost snarling, attack-like mode hidden behind the facade of upper-crust society. Audience members learned from Novak that it was one of the most difficult segments from the repertoire. He also revealed that the Taylor dancers fill movements to the utmost because they understand the purpose and meaning behind each of them.

The performance mode carried into the studios as well, because this company teaches full force even there. Former company member Connie Dinapoli taught an adult class that revealed a meaty understanding of Taylor, both man and artist. Floor warm-ups led to balletic tendus interwoven with a fall from Esplanade. There was an adagio, where the slow movements and balancing allowed for the gliding “Taylor walk.”

They ran “like heck” in the “Taylor run,” weighty and low slung, and gamely tackled the iconic baseball slide from Esplanade. It proved that the Taylor technique was a lot harder than it looked.

Dinapoli did it again with a class at the Girls’ Club, although attendance was limited because of a drenching rain. Then company member Heather McGinley led another group geared to the younger set, with fellow Taylor dancer Alex Clayton helping to demonstrate upcoming moves in last Saturday’s Amphitheater program — Concertiana, Dust and Promethean Fire.

Last Saturday’s pre-concert lecture was led by company manager Bridget Welty, who left the company to spread her wings, only to come back because Taylor missed her, and rehearsal assistant, Andy LeBeau, who never left at all, because, as Novak had noted, being a member of the Taylor company is a career, and a satisfying one at that.

For those who were keeping score, the Chautauqua/Taylor collaboration contained a dozen events. In what turned out to be a bonus, there were numerous quotes and memories that fed the backstory of this American choreographer. There was one that stood out, though: “Paul Taylor doesn’t hire dancers. He hires people.”

People who not only contribute to the company, but also to the choreography. It was something that readily became apparent — and so satisfying.

Jane Vranish is a former dance critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and continues there as a contributing writer. Her stories can also be read on the dance blog “Dance Currents” at She is an assistant professor of dance at Point Park University.

Nature and Faith: Anjali Sachdeva to Present Prize-Winning ‘Names They Used for God’

The 2019 Chautauqua Prize, created by local artist Kirsten Engstrom, honors Anjali Sachdeva’s “All the Names They Used for God: Stories”. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR



After finishing the last story of the collection that would become the critically lauded, Chautauqua Prize-winning All the Names They Used for God, Anjali Sachdeva went back to the beginning. At that point, her debut was still without a title, and her agent suggested she write an introduction as a way to delineate the whimsical, genre-bending stories inside the manuscript for potential publishers — and for Sachdeva herself.

“I can say I did not go into this with a plan,” Sachdeva said.

In writing the three-paragraph opening that appears in the paperback edition of All the Names They Used for God, Sachdeva found that a broader idea of characters “searching for or struggling with a force bigger than themselves” linked the nine stories. From this perspective, “All the Names They Used for God” — the title at the centerpiece of the collection — applied to the work as a whole.

The $7,500 annual Chautauqua Prize celebrates a book that provides a richly rewarding reading experience and honors the author for a significant contribution to the literary arts. That author, Sachdeva, will offer a reading from that book, All the Names They Used for God — selected from 205 nominated books — at 3:30 p.m. Friday, August 16 in the Hall of Philosophy. A book signing will follow.

After settling on a title, Sachdeva’s publisher was “understandably concerned” that readers would misconstrue the work as a religious text. The author looks to the book’s epigraph, a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote from his essay, “Nature,” to encapsulate her intentions.

“There is definitely a theme of faith, but I think it aligns more with that transcendentalist idea of the sublime role of nature,” she said. “There are a couple of stories where faith in God and religion is a central focus, but there are other stories where it is about a faith in nature, or a faith in art or magic.”

These stories “walk the knife-edge between” wonder and terror, as Sachdeva writes in her introduction — encompassing everything from a translucent mermaid to the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping in Nigeria.

For Atom Atkinson, director of literary arts, the Prize presentation is an opportunity for Chautauquans to directly enjoy the benefits of the Prize readers’ work.

“Among the things we ask readers to keep in mind when they’re recommending books to advance to the next level of judgment is whether this is the kind of book they could imagine a lot of different kinds of readers picking up, finishing and then talking about,” they said. “That’s how literature has thrived at Chautauqua for a long time. Our Prize reflects that. We’re really excited to have, once again, a book that fits that bill.”

The eighth pick in the history of The Chautauqua Prize, All the Names They Used for God is the second short story collection to win, the first being Phil Klay’s National Book Award-Winning Redeployment in 2015.

“Collections are a really rich zone of intellectual inquiry,” Atkinson said. “You’re able to think about each (story), its own implicit thesis about how the world works and what it has to offer you as the reader and its characters, and then move on to the next set of rules and set of values, and think about how all of those live alongside each other and inside you. You do all of that work even before you get to talk to someone else about it. It’s a really rich, dynamic foundation for a community discussion of literature.”

On Tuesday, Chautauquans dined in the Athenaeum Hotel Parlor during the 2019 Chautauqua Prize dinner, an evening originally conceived by Sherra Babcock, former vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, and her team in order to celebrate both the winning author and the nearly 80 Chautauquans who serve as readers for the prize. The physical prize, which was revealed at the dinner, is a sculpture created by Kirsten Engstrom. Evocative of Sachdeva’s grimly humorous short story “Manus,” the Prize features two hands — one human and one alien — resting on top of each other.

“The Chautauqua Prize dinner was first conceived as a way to reflect the fact that this is a very distinctly community-oriented prize,” Atkinson said. “It honors the readers in spirit because it’s saying we need to have a special gathering to reflect that fact that we couldn’t do this without our community. What does it mean to pick a book to celebrate together?”

Matt Ewalt, current vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said he was “excited to celebrate Anjali and her remarkable debut work, work that cuts across genre and breaks down our traditional reading silos.”

Both Ewalt and Atkinson agreed that the diverse subjects in All The Names They Used for God have enabled more connections across a broad community of readers.

“(All the Names They Used for God) could be described as magical realism in a lot of places, but it is preoccupied with the things that all literature is preoccupied with — things like destiny, the meaning of life, how that reflects on the answer for all of humanity,” Atkinson said. “These stories are tethered to questions around capital ‘G’ God and the broadly spiritual questions that lie just beneath the surface of all of our everyday interactions and crises. I can’t wait for everyone to read it.”

Citing collections like Clare Beams’ We Show What We Have Learned and Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World — as well as the work of short story authors Kelly Link and Kevin Brockmeier — Sachdeva said the ideas inside her own collection are “not enough (on which) to write 200 to 300 pages.”

“(The short story) has the ability to consider one really specific idea and its human implications,” Sachdeva said. “A lot of people have said to me that they’re surprised by the variety of stories in (All the Names They Used for God). That’s partly because I wrote (the collection) over a long period of time. But it’s also because that’s what is enjoyable to me about writing short stories. I can write about an isolated pioneer woman and then switch to a totally different mode and write a story set in the near future.”

All the Names They Used for God opens with “The World By Night,” a story set in the 1800s about a woman — the aforementioned “isolated pioneer woman” — who investigates an intricate cave system inspired by Sachdeva’s own tour of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park. Sachdeva recalled how, during her hour in the cave, the park guide explained how individuals once explored the dark passageways with only candle lanterns. Even now, with technology advanced far beyond wax and fire, spelunkers have to be cautious in the face of nature’s maw.

“They still get lost,” Sachdeva said.

West Coast Folk-Rock Band Dawes Returns to Amphitheater


When the members of folk rock group Dawes set out on their current tour, “An Evening With Dawes: Passwords Tour,” they had the perfect opening act in mind: themselves.

It’s not an exaggeration — the band performs two complete sets a night with no opening act for a maximum-Dawes evening. Chautauquans can catch “An Evening with Dawes” at 8:15 p.m. Friday, August 16 in the Amphitheater.

The band currently consists of singer and guitarist Taylor Goldsmith; his brother, drummer Griffin Goldsmith; bassist Wylie Gelber; and keyboardist Lee Pardini.

Gelber said the decision to tour solo had a lot to do with a desire to do the group’s extensive six-album discography justice.

“Just for the sake of keeping it interesting for us and people at the show, we like to play weirder, deep cuts off each record,” Gelber said. “As we added records (to) our own catalog, it became harder and harder to represent all the songs we wanted to play and be able to mix it up every night and still play the songs we knew people definitely wanted to hear. … You don’t want to extend (the set) too long if people have to sit through an opening band, … so we decided to try it without an opener and just do a two-set thing where we can really stretch out.”

Gelber has enjoyed the opportunity to perform new sets every night featuring songs from all of the band’s eras.

“It always kind of keeps me on my toes,” he said. “I can breathe new life into songs that otherwise I might get sick of playing. When we sprinkle them in randomly, they get fun again.”

Dawes formed in Southern California, and its West Coast roots are evident in the group’s sound. In a 2018 NPR Music review of its most recent album, Passwords, writer Stephen Thompson described Dawes as specializing in “smooth and ingratiating California folk-rock that never bothers to hide its big, beating, bleeding heart.”

Passwords, which came out in June 2018, explores the national political and social divisions of the last few years.

“We’re living in such a unique moment in history,” Taylor Goldsmith, the group’s songwriter, said in a recent press release from Dawes’ management, Q Prime. “Many of these songs are an attempt to come to terms with the modern world, while always trying to consider both sides of the story.”

Looking back at the 10 years that have passed since the band formed and released its debut album, North Hills, Gelber said that although their sound has progressed, the first record still holds up.

“We played a set at Newport (Folk Festival) a couple weeks ago and it was just that record only and … we were like, ‘Wow, that record made an OK set,’ and we realized, that was our set for a couple years — those were the only songs we had,” he said. “So, it was fun to do that again and realize, ‘Oh yeah, that still sounds pretty good.’ ”

Gelber is excited for Dawes to return to the Amp for the first time since 2011, when the band opened for Alison Krauss.

“The space will definitely determine the setlist,” he said. “We try to treat each show like its own thing.”

Life on the road is far from glamorous, so Gelber said he and the rest of the band spend most of their time looking forward to their shows.

“The time we get on stage every night is our most enjoyable time of the day,” he said. “Most of your life on tour is just kind of sitting around in different rooms or on the tour bus. … You’re just sitting in a parking lot in Cincinnati being like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ But every show day is a good day.”

Bill McKibben Calls for Individual Action and Collective Climate Change Reversal

Author, Environmentalist and Co-founder of Bill McKibben gives a lecture about impacting political action on climate change Thursday Aug. 15, 2019 at the Amp. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Bill McKibben is no theologian, but he firmly believes that the oil industry has more money than God.

And the industry’s gain became humanity’s loss. Between the lies and deception that funded the oil industry’s cause, more than 30 years of precious time was stolen — time that could have been spent bringing the fight against climate and resource degradation to a successful end. If that end is a possibility at all.

McKibben, environmental activist, author and founder of, an international organization that encourages the use of renewable energy and divestment from the fossil fuel industry through political action and grassroots organizing, spoke at 10:45 a.m. Thursday, August 15 in the Amphitheater, continuing Week Eight, “Shifting Global Power.”

In 1989, Mckibben released The End of Nature, which is now considered the first book on global warming written for a general audience.

His book issued warnings of what was to come because, at the time, it was clear what the environment was facing and still faces: When coal, oil and gas burns, carbon dioxide is released, and the molecular structure of carbon dioxide traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out into space.

But what he didn’t know 30 years ago, was how fast and how hard that carbon dioxide would impact the Earth, mostly because it was an “experiment the world had never carried out before.”

“Scientists, it turns out, are conservative in their projections, and the planet turned out to be extraordinarily out of balance,” McKibben said.

Last summer, McKibben took a trip to Greenland, home to one of the world’s greatest ice shelves. There is so much ice in Greenland that if it all melted, it would raise the average level of the ocean by 23 feet. The trip’s intent was to take two women, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, from Marshall Islands in Micronesia, and Greenland native Aka Niviâna, to the top of an ice sheet and have them perform a poem that showcased the linkages between their homelands in the face of climate change.

“It was extraordinary to watch because it reminds us, among other things, that climate change is the greatest injustice that we have yet to figure out how to work on this planet,” McKibben said. “The iron rule of global warming is the less you did to cause it, the quicker and harder you are going to feel it.”

While riding above Greenland in a helicopter, McKibben witnessed a glacier collapse into the ocean below, a powerful example of what he said is happening everywhere, all the time.

“It was both incredibly beautiful and incredibly sinister,” he said. “Something like that is happening every second, of every minute of every hour of every day on this planet. Every time it does, the ocean rises a fraction of a millimeter. And over time, this kind of global change is reshaping the planet on which we were born.”

Since there is no plan that could refreeze what has already melted, McKibben said the world’s current state is one of “enormous peril, with precious, little time to solve it.” And that’s the worst news he has to offer.

The good news is that over the last 15 years, scientists and engineers have done their jobs “just about as well as politicians have done theirs badly.” The cost of solar panels and wind turbines has fallen 90% over those 15 years, making it the least expensive way to generate power around the world.

“If we really wanted to make that all-out push, there is no practical or technological reason that we couldn’t, in relatively short order, replace the coal, gas and oil that currently powers our world, with the sun and the wind that wash across this planet every day,” McKibben said.

And over those same 15 years, McKibben’s idea of creating change has evolved. He used to believe people would read his book and then they would change. Then he believed if enough books were released and enough speeches were delivered, leaders would take necessary action. But after a certain point, it became clear to him that “we had long since won the argument,” because by 1995, the world’s scientists were in agreement about what was going on.

“We won the argument, but we were losing the fight because the fight was not about data and reason,” McKibben said. “The fight was what fights are always about: money and power.”

The fossil fuel industry, the world’s richest industry, had enough money and power to continue its business model for a few more decades, even if it would cost the planet itself. Over the past five years, McKibben said investigative journalism from the Los Angeles Times and the Columbia Journalism School have painted a clear picture of what the fossil fuel industry knew and what they did — or didn’t — do about it.

As it turns out, by the early 1980s, the fossil fuel industry knew “pretty much everything” there was to know about climate change, and at the time, Exxon was the biggest and most profitable company in the world.

“There was year after year when Exxon made more money than any company in the history of money,” McKibben said. “They had a great staff of scientists and their product was carbon, so of course they were going to find out what was going on.”

By 1983, Exxon’s senior scientists had informed the senior executives how much and how fast the planet was going to warm. To compensate for rising sea levels, the executives started to build drilling rigs higher above sea level. What they did not do: tell “any of the rest of us.”

“Instead, they embarked on a highly expensive, industry-wide campaign to build the architecture of deceit, denial and disinformation, that has kept us locked for 30 years in a completely sterile debate about whether or not global warming was real — a debate that both sides knew the answer to at the beginning, it’s just one of them was willing to lie,” McKibben said.

According to McKibben, that lie was the “most consequential in human history.”

“A small price on carbon 30 years ago, would have begun to steer the ocean liner that is the global economy a few degrees in a different direction, and 30 years later, we would’ve sailed into a different ocean,” he said.

McKibben said one can chart the power of that lie by looking at the presidents on either end of it. Thirty years ago, Republican President George H.W. Bush believed climate change was a real problem and said he would fight the “greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” Three decades later, current Republican President Donald Trump said “climate change is a hoax manufactured by the Chinese.” 

Once McKibben realized climate change was a fight and not an argument, he began to think about how fights are won. Realistically, the fight to mitigate climate change couldn’t be won by outspending Exxon, Shell or BP. However, history does suggest that, from time to time, people are able to come together in movements that — when large enough — can counterbalance power.

One of those movements was McKibben’s International Day of Climate Action on Oct. 24, 2009. With 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, CNN called it the “most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.”

Pictures flooded the internet of communities participating in Wales, Cape Town, Bangladesh, London, Beijing, Sana’a and many others. McKibben, who had always been told “environmentalism was for rich, white people,” was struck by the photos.

“Most of the people we were working with around the world were poor, black, brown, Asian and young, because that’s what most of the world is composed of,” McKibben said.

McKibben showed a photo of a group of children from Haiti, standing in water after a powerful hurricane. In the photo, a little girl holds a sign that reads “Your actions affect me.” McKibben realized that statement is true for her, but the opposite is not true for many global citizens and leaders who might see the photo on the internet.

“There is really very little anyone in Haiti can do to solve this problem,” he said. “They can’t burn less fossil fuel because they are hardly burning any now. They can’t come to the White House and protest because we don’t let Haitians come into the country, let alone for something like that.”

In other movements and protests, internal change has been impactful. Earlier this year, the TransCanada Corporation changed its name to TC Energy and announced they would, yet again, delay the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline because “too many people are in the way.” Examples like that have a ripple effect, McKibben said.

“You also, by demonstrating that it is possible to stand up to the oil industry, set in motion a series of events which means that now, every pipeline, every coal mine, gets fought and fought hard around the world,” he said. “That is extraordinarily good news because we win an awful lot of those fights.”

Whether it be a campaign, protests, movement or even signs, every effort in the fight for balance matters, McKibben said. And stories of the “big and the powerful” against the “mighty and the few” have been told again and again, which always begin the same way: with people acting outside of their comfort zones.

“The planet is way, way outside of its comfort zone, so you need to be, too,” McKibben said. “That means different things to different people.”

For McKibben, going outside of his comfort zone took him to a place he never thought he would go: jail. Just last week, he was arrested after an “immigration and climate” protest, as climate is driving people to leave their homes.

“What choice do they have other than to move?” McKibben said. “The United Nations estimates between 200 million and 1 billion climate refugees this century — there’s got to be some answer for that beyond walls and cages.”

Although he is not encouraging anyone to get arrested, he doesn’t consider it to be the worst possible outcome.

“Getting arrested?” McKibben asked. “It’s not fun, but it’s not the end of the world — the end of the world is the end of the world.”

McKibben’s hero, Martin Luther King Jr., often quoted Theodore Parker who said, “We must believe that the arc of the universe is long, but that it bends toward justice.”

The arc of the physical universe, on the other hand, is short and it bends toward heat.

But young people should not have to be the “cannon fire” in efforts to reverse the damage; people of all ages need to take charge, McKibben said. But regardless of age, what is being done now is not enough, and that isn’t even the hardest truth for him to reveal. Even if people do everything right from here on out, there is no way to know if the fight will ever be won. There are no guarantees. No concrete answers. Only faith and the will to try. 

“If we do not solve this problem soon, we will not solve it,” McKibben said. “We are called upon to act with all that we have. It is the fight of our time — and we need you.”

Heather McGhee Speaks on Journey to Uncover Racism’s Impacts in Society

Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow and former president Heather McGhee speaks to a crowd of Chautauquans about the hazards of racism not only to racial minorities, but to white people and the world as a whole also, recounting a story of a man named Gary from North Carolina who came to her, admitting his prejudices and wanting to change to, “become a better American,” during her afternoon lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For the past two years, Heather McGhee has been on a walk — one that has taken her from Mississippi, to Alaska to California — a walk that began after an unexpected phone call.

McGhee, author and distinguished senior fellow at the think tank Demos, began her interfaith lecture on Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy by taking Chautauquans back to the “racially charged” summer of 2016, when she made her first appearance on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” The show invites guests — typically journalists and policymakers — to discuss current issues, and viewer calls are a staple of the program.

Originally, McGhee planned to touch on issues like rising student loan debt, raising the minimum wage for low-paid workers and voting rights during the program.

“But about halfway through the show, I got a call with a question that I was absolutely not expecting,” McGhee said.

The call was from Garry Civitello — a white man from North Carolina who openly admitted his prejudices, particularly toward black men, on live television. But Civitello wasn’t seeking to spread his prejudiced preconceptions; he was trying to change them.

“ ‘I want to know what (McGhee) can do to help me become a better American,’ ” McGhee said, quoting Civitello. “So there I am, in this seat, with this earpiece, … and I just said the first thing that came to mind, which was, ‘Thank you.’ ”

She thanked Civitello for his courage to admit something most would never admit.

“I also thanked (Civitello) because I felt that he had opened up a conversation that, at the time, was becoming electrified and charged; and in the static and the noise of all that, we weren’t hearing each other at all,” McGhee said.

But most importantly, McGhee was thankful for Civitello’s acknowledgment that overcoming his prejudices would make him a better American. So she offered him advice on how to do just that — she recommended he get to know black families, read about the contributions African Americans have made to the United States throughout history, and if he’s a religious person, to join an interracial church.

And then her discussion with Civitello was over, but his journey was not — his journey, or “walk” as he described it, had just begun.

Civitello later told McGhee, “It was like you wiped the dirt from a window, and let the light in.” He held himself accountable for his discriminatory fears and anxieties — prejudices that affect the daily lives of black Americans.

“He has a responsibility to get over (his fears) and he knows that,” McGhee said. “One of the other things he did was to start taking little pictures on his iPhone of all the Confederate flags he saw on people’s jackets, on their bumper stickers, on people’s lawns. For him, before his ‘walk,’ as he calls it, he didn’t really think about (Confederate memorabilia).”

Civitello is on a walk to overcome his prejudice for personal reasons, according to McGhee. Through his walk to rid himself of what he described as a weight on his chest, McGhee was forced to ask herself: What are the costs of racism to white people?

She said she needed to focus on this question because American society has been sold into “a zero-sum way of looking at the world.”

“What’s good for you is bad for me; my gain has to come at your expense,” McGhee said. “That’s really the worldview that’s being sold so often right now, particularly when it comes to race. ‘If there are more immigrants of color in the country coming from … Central America and the Caribbean and Asia, well — that must be why the factories are closing. That must be why the schools have less money.’ ”

McGhee thought extensively about this zero-sum paradigm and had an “a-ha” moment — many racial and economic justice advocates have only been talking about how racism benefits white people, and not how it harms them, as well. If this sentiment holds true, then McGhee asks, “How can a multi-racial democracy thrive?”

Currently, Americans — especially white Americans — are buying the idea that “some groups of people are simply worth more than others.” It’s an old belief that McGhee said is not just present in modern America, but is vigorously marketed. 

“My journey these past two years has been to ask the question, ‘Yes, they are buying it; the Garrys of the world are buying it,’ ” McGhee said. “But what are they paying for it? And what have we all paid for it over the course of our history?”   

Two years ago, McGhee began her own walk — she has traveled throughout the United States to uncover the ways in which racism is strategically and politically employed to divide neighbors. She has been exploring how this deliberate use of racism alters everything in U.S. society, from wages down to the air different citizens breathe.

“One of the most profound ways that this zero-sum lie has shaped America has been to make cross-racial solidarity between working class people almost impossible,” McGhee said. “This has happened — it’s been a tool of division to undermine collective action for all of our economic history.”

As this zero-sum lie exists and thrives in the United States, workers frequently act against their own best interests. She witnessed factory workers at an auto-manufacturing plant in Canton, Mississippi, vote against unionization. It was a divisive vote, and had the majority of workers voted in favor of unionizing, they would have received higher wages, health care and other benefits. McGhee wanted to know why the majority of workers turned these benefits down.

Many of the factory workers viewed unions as a system to benefit black people.

“It seemed that the word ‘union’ itself had become a dog whistle with code for the North,” McGhee said, “for undeserving people of color who need the union’s help to compensate, perhaps, for some flaw in their character.”

Elsewhere, she has talked with fast food workers of all races and ethnicities at restaurants like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Popeye’s and Domino’s Pizza who have come together to advocate for a $15-hourly wage. One worker, Terrence, said the uniting factor between all the employees is that “they all get up and work,” that all of the employees, of all races, are struggling and should fight together for what’s right.

So these are the material costs of racism, but what about the spiritual ones? In the midst of discussions centered on systematic financial racism and how segregation is to everybody’s detriment, McGhee said people would “turn to how they felt, on a soul level.”

She quoted Jim Wallis, American theologian and activist, who referred to whiteness as an idol, something that separates people from God.

“ ‘It gives us an identity that is false, one filled with wrongful pride, one that perpetuates both injustice and oppression,” McGhee said, quoting Wallis. “He says, ‘For American democracy to be real for all its citizens, we must die to whiteness.’ ”

The identity of whiteness was created to establish who holds societal privilege.

“It was identity created for violent, oppressive profit, to say who had the privileges of our society and who did not,” McGhee said. “So (Wallis) says, ‘Only if we die to whiteness, can we become alive to our true identity, as human beings of one race, the human race.’ ”

McGhee believes that the zero-sum paradigm can be rejected, and everybody can be welcoming to people of all races, and come to realize the societal benefits from that inclusion. She visited Lewiston, Maine, a rural town that had been depopulated due to mills and factories moving out of the area.

“But towards the end of the main street, you could see it came alive,” McGhee said. “And it came alive with the shops and businesses of black, Muslim immigrants from Africa. … And they have reanimated this town.”

Lives are being transformed across the country by interracial community relationships in towns like Lewiston, according to McGhee — a narrative subverted by rhetoric leading many Americans to believe that immigrants are dangerous, or that there should be a Muslim ban.

“But that doesn’t have to be our story, does it?” McGhee asked. “It doesn’t have to be our story. If a man named Garry, who spent most of his days, and still today, watching TV with his dog, can reach out to the most unlikely person — a black, dreadlocked, progressive woman from Brooklyn — and forge a friendship and change, well then for Garry’s sake, don’t you think we all can?”

Veteran Andrew Bacevich to Illuminate ‘An Age of Illusions’ in Interfaith Lecture


Andrew Bacevich believes the nation — and the world — is in the midst of a profound moral and political crisis.

“I’m going to argue that President Trump is not the cause of that crisis, but merely a symptom,” Bacevich said. Bacevich is an author, professor of history and professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, August 15 in the Hall of Philosophy, Bacevich will discuss societal issues in his lecture, “An Age of Illusions,” which is part of the Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series, “The Power of Soft Power.”

“During the latter part of the Cold War, I was a serving military officer,” Bacevich said. “I vaguely imagined that if the Cold War ever ended, the U.S. would become a ‘normal nation,’ minding its own business. Just the reverse occurred. American ambitions grew, as did the U.S. willingness to use force, more often than not, with negative consequences. I’ve been trying to figure out why that happened.”

Part of the reason America didn’t end up as a “normal nation,” according to Bacevich, was because of lingering Cold War mentalities.

“The outcome of the East-West conflict persuaded American political and intellectual elites that the ‘end of history’ had arrived,” he said. “The American way defined the inevitable future to which all others would be obliged to adhere.”

Bacevich said that soft power and its relationship with foreign policy in the United States can be traced to the events surrounding the Cold War.

“For starters, (soft power from a foreign policy perspective) means recognizing the limitations of hard power,” he said. “A central theme of U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War has been the misuse of American military might. A crucial step toward an effective approach to policy is to recognize what military power can and cannot do.”

In 2009, Bacevich published The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, which immediately became a New York Times best-seller.

Part of the reason for his book’s popularity was due to acclaimed broadcast journalist Bill Moyers, according to Bacevich.

“A decade ago, he had me on his television show to discuss my book,” he said. “(Moyers’) interview with me made the book a success.”

Bacevich’s writing process for Limits of Power was to “get up early in the morning, take the dog out for a pee, make myself a cup of coffee and get to work.”

For his lecture today, Bacevich said he wants to encourage his audience to “look beyond Trump.”

“Americans were asked either to perpetuate the direction of American politics or to choose a radically different course,” he said. “Those who voted for Trump or who couldn’t be bothered to vote, in effect, rejected the status quo. Trump did not create the conditions that led so many Americans to act as they did. He merely exploited them.”

CSO, Rebekah Howell and Inbal Segev to Perform New Composition and Explore Heaven

Conductor Rossen Milanov leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra as they play, “The Isle of the Dead, op.29,” composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff as their first piece in their, “Don Quixote,” concert on Thursday, Aug 8, 2019 in the Chautauqua Amphitheater. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s concert this evening will last less than two hours — but it will explore eternity. 

At 8:15 p.m. Thursday, August 15 in the Amphitheater, the CSO will perform Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, an orchestral and vocal exploration of heaven. The concert will also feature London-based composer Anna Clyne’s new concerto for cello and orchestra, “DANCE.”

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 is made up of four movements that follow a child’s death and afterlife. Although the subject matter begins in a dark place, CSO Conductor and Music Director Rossen Milanov said the piece is unforgettable.

“I envy the people who haven’t heard Mahler 4 and can hear it for the first time,” Milanov said. “It’s one of those pieces that you never forget.”

Renaissance-era artists often portrayed death as a skeletal figure playing the violin. Milanov said the CSO will echo this imagery with its instruments.

“In the second movement, the concertmaster will use two violins,” Milanov said, “one normal, and one which is tuned much higher. In many legends, Death itself played a violin — it would take you away, playing the sweet sound of a violin. So in that way, the final resolution of the symphony is already predicted somewhat. Death itself appears, taking the shape of a more awkward and shrill-sounding violin.”

Soprano Rebekah Howell will perform with the CSO in the final movement of the piece, which explores a child’s idea of heaven. Howell said this movement is a sensory, kinetic experience; the lyrics describe plentiful food, dancing saints and angelic music.

“It’s not at all what you would think of heaven, but it’s exactly what someone would think of when describing a simple, uncluttered life,” Howell said. “It makes you reconsider how blessed we are when we have those simple things: food to eat, things to do, fish to catch in the river.”

The symphony’s vocal portion ends with an awestruck description of heavenly music.

“At the very end, there’s a long, beautiful symphonic section that brings back a motif from earlier,” Howell said. “The ending stanza talks about the music in heaven — how there’s nothing else that can compare with it.”

The symphony ends with a quiet orchestral portion, Milanov said.

“The last miracle it describes is this beautiful celestial music in heaven, and that’s how the symphony finishes: this extremely quiet wave of sound that goes into eternity,” Milanov said.

The concert will open with Clyne’s new piece, “DANCE.” The concerto is based on a poem by medieval writer Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, often known as Rumi. The concerto’s five short movements are based on the five lines of Rumi’s poem:

“Dance, when you’re broken open. / Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. / Dance in the middle of the fighting. / Dance in your blood. / Dance when you’re perfectly free.”

Clyne wrote the piece for cellist Inbal Segev, an award-winning alumna of the Yale School of Music and the Juilliard School of Music.

Segev said “DANCE” explores the poem’s emotional qualities through a variety of styles.

“The first movement starts in a very special way; the cello sounds like a violin,” Segev said. “It plays very high and very ethereal, and I’ve never seen that in a concerto before. Then it’s kind of grungy and virtuosic and rougher in the second movement. The third is very spiritual, and the last two are more virtuosic — these beautiful, romantic melodies.”

Segev said new music has an important place in modern orchestra performance.

“(Classical compositions) are beautiful works, and I think we will always love them — as long as there are humans on Earth, we’ll play Bach,” Segev said. “But I think that, to move the world forward, we have to support composers and play new works.”

Climate Activist Bill McKibben to Talk Environmental Disruption


This morning, environmental activist and author Bill McKibben will be on the Amphitheater stage. One week ago, he spent a few hours in jail.

McKibben was participating in a peaceful protest against the immigrant detention centers on the southern border outside U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik’s office in Glen Falls, New York, last Thursday.

He and five others went into the representative’s office and said they would stay until they could talk to the congresswoman, who an aide said was unavailable. The congresswoman’s staff called the police, and McKibben and his fellow protesters were arrested and charged with criminal trespass.

This was McKibben’s seventh or eighth arrest, he said. It is a frequent enough occurrence for him that he cannot remember the exact number off-hand, but nonetheless, it is an experience that he still finds alarming.

“It’s always a little scary,” he said. “If a policeman tells you to do something, the correct instinct is to do it. That’s how societies work best. You have laws, people follow them. But on occasion, history indicates you need to think otherwise and do otherwise.”

McKibben will speak at 10:45 a.m. Thursday, August 15 in the Amphitheater, as part of Week Eight, “Shifting Global Power.” He is the founder of, an international organization that encourages the use of renewable energy and divestment from the fossil fuel industry through political action and grassroots organizing.

The organization’s name comes from NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s assertion that the highest safe concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide is 350 parts per million. Currently, the Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is more than 400 parts per million.

This dangerous level is what drives climate change. This global phenomenon is forcing people to flee their homes to find more hospitable environments.

“Changes in the climate are now fueling dramatic increases in migration around the world,” McKibben said. “When it gets too hot or too dry to grow food, people are going to leave.”

A 2015 study by the Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University found that forecasts of the number of environmental migrants by 2050 range from 25 million to 1 billion, with 200 million being the most widely cited estimate.

“Even if it wasn’t cold and cruel, there just aren’t enough cages you can put people in,” McKibben said.

McKibben started out his career as a journalist. He wrote a long-form piece about climate change for The New Yorker, which turned into his first book, The End of Nature, published in 1989, and largely considered the first book on climate change written for a general audience.

“I just knew it was the biggest story in the world,” he said.

Since then, McKibben has written nearly 20 books on the environment, climate, media and culture. He has also become an active political protester. For example, in 2006, he led a five-day walk across Vermont, where he lives, to raise awareness and call for climate change action. The next year, he initiated the Step It Up 2007 campaign, which sparked hundreds of rallies across the United States to demand Congress curb carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050.

Founded in 2008, has organized 20,000 rallies around the world, in every country except North Korea.

McKibben said he has noticed a change in the willingness of people to embrace action on climate change over the past few decades.

“What’s interesting is right at the beginning, when we were first learning about climate change, people were pretty open to the idea of doing something,” he said. “Within a couple of years, the fossil fuel industry had mobilized and begun what’s been this 30-year propaganda effort to keep us from doing anything.”

In 2016, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a suit that accused Exxon Mobil of violating state consumer protection rules and misleading investors about the impacts of fossil fuels on climate change. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Exxon’s appeal to block the release of records on its knowledge of the effect of burning fossil fuels on the climate.

Now, there are more droughts and floods because of climate change, McKibben said.

“We’ll see a lot more of these things, and they’ll begin to build on each other and create more crises,” he said.

He cited a devastating drought in Syria that caused 75% of Syria’s farms to fail, and 85% of livestock to die between 2006 and 2011, according to the United Nations. During this natural disaster, 1.5 million Syrians migrated to cities, which escalated conflict that led to war, and has since precipitated a mass migration of Syrian refugees into Europe.

“There’s nothing theoretical about what’s going on,” McKibben said. “Now, anybody with a TV can see the floods and the fires and the famines. And that’s why people are becoming more and more engaged and angry and active.”

At his talk, McKibben will encourage people to get involved in speaking out against the fossil fuel industry. He will also invite Chautauquans to participate in the Global Climate Strike this September, which is being organized by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

“There’s a lot of things we can do as individuals, and most people know what those are,” he said. “Truthfully, the most important thing an individual can do is become a little less of an individual and join a movement.”

Hardy Merriman Calls for Nonviolent Resistance as Method of Change

President of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, Hardy Merriman speaks during the Interfaith Lecture Series about “Power From the Bottom Up: Civil Resistance as a Driver of Rights, Freedom, and Justice,” on Tuesday, August 13, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.

In his first visit to Chautauqua Institution, Hardy Merriman had something to prove: Nonviolent civil resistance is a more effective sociopolitical strategy than violent insurgence.   

For the sustainability of democracy, for women’s rights, immigrants, labor, minority communities — for all human rights causes — Merriman believes nonviolent resistance is an essential collective tool for any activist.

“There’s clear evidence to show that civil resistance movements have a crucial role to play in advancing peace, democracy, accountability, justice and human rights in the world,” Merriman said.

Merriman, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, delivered his lecture, “Power from the Bottom Up: Civil Resistance as a Driver For Rights, Freedom and Justice,” on Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy, as part of the Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series, “The Power of Soft Power.”

Using social science methods and a data set commissioned by the ICNC in 2007, Merriman explored the differences between nonviolent and violent action, the relative effectiveness of those actions and a new conception of what it means to be an “activist.”

To begin, Merriman first described civil resistance movements as having a concerned-citizen structure, one that is based on two types of acts — acts of commission and acts of omission.

“In all these movements, people voluntarily mobilize; no one paid them to mobilize, they weren’t forced,” Merriman said.

That mobilization, Merriman said, can either be predicated on acts of commission — people doing things they are not supposed to do, not expected to do, or forbidden by law from doing — or acts of omission, when people “refuse to do what they were supposed to, expected to do or required by law to do.”

These acts can include strikes, protests, boycotts — more conventionally “seen” methods — as well as divestment and withdrawals of support for particular institutions, all of which, Merriman said, challenge the status quo and the fact that “power comes from obedience.”

Hardy Merriman speaks during the Interfaith Lecture Series about “Power From the Bottom Up: Civil Resistance as a Driver of Rights, Freedom, and Justice,” on Tuesday, August 13, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“When we do the things we’re supposed to do, this creates the status quo, and certain people and groups have learned to really benefit from that, profit enormously and then sometimes take that power and use it in ways we don’t like,” Merriman said. “When we withdraw our cooperation and obedience, we can make that status quo costly, and shift the balance of power in society.”

Perhaps inherent in all people is the desire for change — even before it bubbles over into wide and collective action, Merriman said, citing John Adams, who described this concept in 1815 with respect to the American Revolution.

“A history of military operations is not a history of the American Revolution,” Merriman quoted. “The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people. It was substantially affected before hostilities commenced.”

Providing examples from the last few years, months and days, including nonviolent movements in South Korea, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Sudan and Hong Kong, Merriman said nonviolent civil resistance is “not culturally specific” and is a “global phenomenon.” As part of the ICNC and directed by American political scientist and professor Erica Chenoweth, a research project was developed in 2007 to help characterize this phenomenon. A data set of events spanning from 1900 to 2006 was compiled and analyzed for the effectiveness of nonviolent and violent movements; the research was used to develop Chenoweth’s award-winning book Why Civil Resistance Works, co-authored by Maria J. Stephan.

The findings offer a better understanding of maximum objectives, which “fundamentally change a government or who is governing,” and what it takes to fulfill them. On average, Merriman said, “nonviolent civil resistance movements were able to achieve their stated goals 53% of the time over the last century,” whereas violent movements achieved their goals 26% of the time. According to Freedom House, authoritarianism has been rising and democracy has been declining in the last 13 years, Merriman said.

But Adams’ perspective that “the revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people,” is not something young people are being exposed to in formal education settings, Merriman said.

“Should children learn this?” Merriman asked. His answer: “Absolutely.”

And the need for educational reform is not limited to educating people about nonviolent civil resistance; it pervades every aspect of moving toward a more nonviolent-oriented world, including in what makes an activist, an activist, and how those activists can be better assisted.

Activists are not just “people with bull horns,” Merriman said. Rather, activists are all types of citizens with diverse skill sets.

“Numbers really matter,” Merriman said. “If you want to win, you need a lot of people, which means you may have to reach out to people who are different from you. You may have to build coalitions; you may have to build unity in a society that’s been divided and ruled.”

To become more effective activists, better organizers and dissidents, Merriman said, an “enabling environment” for nonviolent resisters must be created. In an effort to create that environment, Merriman co-authored Right to Assist with Peter Ackerman. Preventing Mass Atrocities From a Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) to a Right to Assist (RtoA) Campaigns of Civil Resistance, or RtoA for short, is part of the ICNC’s special report series and was released in May. The report provides an extensive outline of needs for nonviolent civil resisters, mostly focusing on a reimagining of how activists can be trained. 

We should not shrink away from these challenges, even though they’re complicated. We need to develop these ideas further. We are at our strongest in the world, and our safest in the world, when we work in solidarity with others and fight together for rights, freedom and justice.” Hardy Merriman President, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict

“Consider this, in any other profession — a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a soldier — they have institutions and established processes to support their learning, development of skills and the practice of individuals in those professions,” Merriman said. “Activists have virtually none of this.”

RtoA suggests a more vocational style of education for activists, one that could be implemented in schools, professional associations, unions, clubs and religious groups.

Merriman returned to the data, pointing to the relative success of nonviolent resistance over the last century and emphasized how remarkable it is for those activists to have achieved their goals “learning on their own time, with very little support.”

“What would it mean if they had much more rigorous support of their cultivation of knowledge, skills and mentorship with other activists?” Merriman asked.

But the assistance shouldn’t end at education, he said. Nonviolent civil resistance movements could benefit from receiving support during transitions of power and in the aftermath of those transitions. 

“Many people who have been living under an authoritarian state have been divided and ruled,” he said. “It takes time for people to build the bonds, to come back together and think about how to unify, not just about what they’re against, but also what they’re for; what do they want to win afterwards?”

The transition is the “first step,” Merriman said, and can require engaging international groups and nongovernmental sectors. That engagement, though, often presents situational challenges, including where and how transition assistance is given, and what parties — international or otherwise — offer that assistance.

“We should not shrink away from these challenges, even though they’re complicated,” Merriman said. “We need to develop these ideas further. We are at our strongest in the world, and our safest in the world, when we work in solidarity with others and fight together for rights, freedom and justice.”

Without that solidarity, a more authoritarian world is imminent, one that is “more prone to warfare, to violence, humanitarian crises and atrocities.”

“It’s a world in which human rights abuses and spreading corruption are more likely to happen, and it hampers the international community’s ability to respond to a whole other range of issues,” Merriman said.

The bad news: Democracies are backsliding and authoritarians are “on offense.”

“Some good news is that the data is very clear that grassroots activists and organizers waging nonviolent struggle are a cornerstone of defending and advancing accountable government,” Merriman said. “We need to take their work seriously and treat it with the same seriousness as any other vocation, build infrastructure that supports the development of skills and knowledge related to this work and provide much more coordinated support to these movements when they face repression and their human rights are being violated. These steps, among other approaches, can help us turn the tide.”

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