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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On Chautauqua, and a travel story not taken

Alan Alda (right) in conversation with Roger Rosenblatt at Chautauqua's Amphitheater.
Last summer, during an extended driving trip to New York and researching my Detroit book, I stopped by Chautauqua Institution for a day with plans to write a travel piece. The outlet that was interested in it then wasn't so interested this summer (getting a little tired of this "non"-recession), and I haven't been able to find another taker for it. Rather than watch it molder, I'm posting it here. Hope you all enjoy it (photos are mine, too, for better or worse).

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. – It was late on a chilly June morning and all of ancient Palestine lay at my feet – with a white-striped chipmunk scurrying Godzilla-like over the hills just east of the Dead Sea, and Alan Alda’s voice echoing faintly in the distance. But they were mere distractions from the task at hand: Finding the musician’s practice shed in which George Gershwin finished one of his signature compositions.

The juxtapositions can get confusing here at the Chautauqua Institution, which began in 1874 as a lakeside summer training camp for Methodist Sunday school teachers and has evolved into one of the nation’s most enduring enclaves of arts, faith, and the genteel embrace of popular culture.

If Las Vegas is an adult Disneyland, then Chautauqua Institution is an adult summer school. In a good way, not in a “if you had studied algebra better you wouldn’t have to make up this class” kind of way. Hundreds of thousands of people over the years have traveled here to the southwest corner of New York State to sit, read, listen and think.

This also is a place of history, from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “I hate war” speech delivered in 1936 (Ulysses S. Grant was the first of four sitting presidents to visit, in 1875), to Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” which he finished 86 years ago in
one of the wooden practice sheds reserved these days for students enrolled in the highly competitive summer-long arts programs.

And it has spawned imitators. A century ago, Chautauqua was the wellspring for a national movement that included copycat Chautauquas (a handful survive today) and traveling “tent chautauquas,” shows built around a line up of public speakers and authors, as though PBS put Charlie Rose on the road. Where the vaudeville circuit featured song-and-dance men and burlesque dancers, the tent chautauquas brought ideas, speeches by the likes of William Jennings Bryant, and a Protestant-propelled effort at self-enlightenment for the masses – a circuit that faded out with the advent of the car and the movies, which gave middle America something else to do on a Saturday night.

The original Chautauqua Institution still flourishes. The 780-acre village of mostly Victorian-style “gingerbread” homes has about 400 year-round residents, and the place takes on an eerie beauty during the depths of winter, as though a human tribe has hibernated. Summertime, the place comes alive. The nine-week programming season (about 2,000 events in all) draws some 7,500 people a day, many staying in rental rooms, apartment and homes sprinkled across the tree-shaded grounds. Cars are tightly limited, which effectively creates a pedestrian village.

Chautauquans come, mostly, to relax, and to be edified. Each week has a programmatic theme for the speaker series, in addition to daily religious talks, author appearances, musical performances and other events, including current events discussions ranging from economics to foreign policy to health and politics. Chautauqua’s religious roots are highly visible, beginning with the scale model replica of ancient Palestine carved into the ground near the lakeshore, with Chautauqua Lake standing in for the Mediterranean. The model was built in Chautauqua’s early years to help with Bible studies, giving students a way to see the places they were reading about.

Plein air artist Ashley Cone at ChautauquaYet the religious programs are just another item on the buffet table. “It seems like everyone is so open-minded,” says Carl Johnson, 29, a self-described agnostic from Tucson who was enjoying his first foray to Chautauqua with the family of a friend for whom a week at Chautauqua is a long-observed tradition. “No one seems evangelical or pushy.”

Johnson, who makes his living as an information technician but also writes music and performs in coffee houses, said he quickly discovered why his friend’s family found the place so appealing. “The art, the atmosphere,” he says, sitting alone on a park bench beneath a sprawling oak tree. “Being able to sit here in the park and write.”

I used to live in this area in the early 1980s, for a time in an apartment across Chautauqua Lake in the village of Bemus Point. Despite countless visits, I’d never managed to track down exactly which shed in which Gershwin had sequestered himself to finish off his famous “Concerto in F,” a jazz-classical hybrid that to this day confounds critics. I grew up in a house where a lot of Gershwin was played (either by my mother, an amateur pianist, or on the stereo), so I decided to make a stop during a trip to visit family in Western New York.

Chautauqua, to no surprise, has changed very little in the 30 years since it was part of my summer routine, from the sprawling 1881-built Athenaeum hotel to the massive, open-sided amphitheater that is the focal point of the daily programs and evening concert series.

I arrived early on the last day in June, before fellow day-trippers filled the parking lot across the busy Route 394, bought my pass at the iron-and-brick gateway, and then wandered to heart of the village, stopping first at the small but well-appointed Bookstore. There are no home-delivered newspapers at Chautauqua, but regulars reserve out of town papers at the bookstore. So morning brings a steady stream of customers to pick up their New York Times, Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Buffalo News or other titles – markers, of a sort, of the hometowns of the bulk of the visitors who stay here.

After wandering around for a bit, I circled the 5,000-seat wooden and roofed amphitheater with its long line of people waiting to hear the morning program, then headed down slope to the lakeshore and “little Palestine,” where Ashley Cone, a 26-year-old New Orleans artist was working away at a plein air watercolor of boats at the dock and then the lake beyond. We chatted for a bit about her experience studying art in New York City two years ago, where she heard about Chautauqua’s summer art school, and eventually was accepted as part of a class of about 30 visual artists. “I think it’s wonderful,” she says. “The school really is a treasure.”

I angled westward, away from the lake, to where the map told me the Gershwin shed would be in a neighborhood of huts set apart from the residential area of Chautauqua. Walking among the sheds is like hiking the nesting grounds of piano birds, with trills and melodies filling the air. It took a little wandering around before I found it, Shed No. 38, or the “Gershwin shed,” which a plaque informs had been renovated as part of a four-year overhaul of the sheds that had begin in 2003.

Chien-I Yang practicing in the Gershwin shed, where he composed From inside came an intricate ragtime being played on a piano. I gave a tentative knock at the door and turned the handle, and found Taiwan native Chien-I Yang, a 24-year-old music major at Lynn University in Florida, warming up her fingers at the Steinway.

Yes, she said, struggling for the English words, she knew she was practicing in the place where Gershwin finished “Concerto in F.” That’s why she had reserved the shed. She had planned ahead, she said as she flipped through her folder of music and pulled out the chart for “Concerto in F.” She had come to Chautauqua to be part of the summer music program, but also to touch a place that Gershwin had touched.

“Gershwin has inspired me a lot,” Yang said. “This is Gershwin’s room, so… I don’t know how to describe it. I would like to practice Gershwin in this room.”

And so she did, teasing out the sparse, jazzy opening measures, the present channeling the past – and maybe the future – in the key of F.
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