Death of an institution

To quote Jim Morrison – “This is the end.” Sticks&Drones is shutting down, its authors moving on to greener pastures (I’m writing a book and Ron’s running for congress), and the readership gets to focus on the new Star Wars movies without any distraction.  I had meant for this post to be something of a retrospective on the gritty life and times of S&D, but true to form the business has dialed up one more travesty that cannot be ignored. So, one more rant before S&D goes out in a blaze of glory. Let’s talk about legacy, history, and pigheadedness.

Chautauqua Institution, in Western New York, I have for years referred to as “The Last Bastion of Civilized Man in America.” For those of you who have never experienced this glorious, bizarre, wonderful, strange, fantastical place – it is a gated community on the shores of Lake Chautauqua, about 70 miles south of Buffalo. The institution goes back 120+ years, and has been the center of progressive thought for most of that time. It actually started from the evangelical chautauqua movement at the end of the 19th century, and developed into a center for all things civilized. It has year around residents, but the main focus is on the 9 week summer season. During that time it boasts its own orchestra, opera company, music school, theater company, lecture series, art studios, you name it. I have heard heads of the U.N. speak there, had a lovely private conversation with the eminent theologian Karen Armstrong, saw the Basie band, Rudolf Serkin, Victor Borge, leaders of industry, government, science, etc., etc., etc. FDR spoke there in 1936, Bobby Kennedy some 30 years later, and the list of others would be a who’s who of the 20th/21st centuries. It is truly one of the most incredible places I know of on the entire planet.

On a personal level Chautauqua has been a thread that has run through most of my life. I first attended a concert there in the summer of ’78, then returned to study piano there in the summers ’79-’81. Friendships that were formed during those times shaped my life, and the atmosphere crept into my soul. My parents retired there in 1990 and spent the last years of their lives there. I am a newbie in this way – i know several families that have attended the institution going back four and five generations.

At the heart of Chautauqua is the Amphitheater. Simply called “The Amp,” this venerable structure was built in 1893 and is one of the last open air venues of its kind left to the world. In 1907, the world’s largest outdoor organ was installed there, a rambling beast that has somehow withstood (most of) the ravages of time. The vast bowl and surround seating has been the host to all these incredible speakers and concerts, it is the site of the Sunday interfaith service, the opening and closing of the Chautauqua season, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.

And yet, in a decision that has horrified those of us who love Chautauqua like no other place, the decision has been made to tear the Amp down. Outdated, the Amp has been called, and so it must be destroyed, to be replaced with a replica, because there is no value in history, even in such a historic place. Over the past several years of this blog there have been great things, tragic things, stupid things, wonderful things, glorious things that have happened, but I can’t think of one thing in the business more deplorable than this action.

Orchestras can be resurrected. Witness what has happened at the Minnesota Orchestra the past couple of years. Witness on a different level what happened at the NY Phil when Kurt Masur (thank you, Maestro; R.I.P.) took over, and he restored that ensemble to greatness. Orchestras come and go, rise and fall, because people come and go, rise and fall. Architecture has a different kind of impermanence. This is why the movement to save Carnegie Hall was so very important – we revere these places because of the direct connection with history. Yes, when I walked onto the main stage at Carnegie Hall I felt that link going back through our history all the way to the first person who ever walked out on that stage to conduct a concert, some hack named Tchaikovsky. He and I were (for once) equals across time/space, puny humans set to enliven the walls of a place that should, and blessedly will, outlive us both.

Yet there is one stage in this country that has as much, if not more, history than Carnegie, and that is the Amp. The reason is that it goes so far beyond simply music. The Amp stage has been the center of multiple cultural events to be sure, but has also felt the footfalls of people whose range of knowledge and interests goes far beyond the playing of a Brahms symphony. All those I mentioned before – Serkin, Armstrong, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Borge, Basie, and countless others – walked across that stage in a setting that made us all equals. A glorious tribute to humanity at its most humane. The stage of the Amp is not a center for music, it is a center of humanity. That is priceless.

This is being casually disregarded by the trustees currently empowered at Chautauqua. They are hellbent on tearing the Amp down, history be damned, and disney-fying it in an attempt to rejuvenate something, no one is sure what. I do not know a single person who thinks this is a good idea. (Update – one person has pipped up saying that it’s going to be “OK.” I question this person’s sanity.) On the contrary, to a person everyone I know thinks this is a crime, and in my case I consider it a crime against humanity. There will be some who think that is an overstatement, but I disagree. Take, for example, these creatures known variably as ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, or whatever. They have a brilliant strategy based on their understanding of human nature – they will blow up large sites of antiquity, knowing full well the hole this rips in humanity’s psyche, all the while peddling whatever they can sell on the underground antiquities market to raise money for their cause. This strategy is successful because they know the value of these large nodes of history, the connection we all have to them, and the outrage that their destruction fuels in the soul of anyone who has ever ached to visit, say, the ancient site of Palmyra. By destroying Palmyra they betray their understanding of its value. They commit a crime against humanity by destroying our history, our legacy, our connection to those who have gone before us.

And what are the trustees of Chautauqua doing? They have at their disposal every opportunity to preserve one of the greatest legacies of this country, to ensure that it would continue well into a third century. They could easily renovate the structure, respect that which has made it great, respect that it is a link to a time long gone but ever present in this unique structure. Instead they have dismissed this great sociological pull and opted for replication, thus disregarding the very nature of the thing they claim to want to preserve. “It will be the same, only better!,” they say. Really? A copy of a Stradivarius is still only a copy. Try passing that off as the real thing on Antique Roadshow, I dare you.

Goodbye, Chautauqua. Goodbye to the very thing that has made you great. Goodbye to history and the preservation of that which is beautiful, and good, and old. Goodbye, you glorious old Amphitheater. I am so very sorry that lesser beings than the ones who conceived you have been left to grind your old bones to dust. It is an unbecoming end to something that has meant so much to so many. At least my parents aren’t around to see it. They would be heartbroken.

6 thoughts on “Death of an institution”

  1. Sorry S&D is shutting down! Good luck with the book, Bill. If you need an editor, let me know. I’m amping up my editing and typing business next month. Thanks for sharing your perspective at this blog — I’ll miss it! Cinda

  2. Best wishes Bill, I have enjoyed your posts very much also. You hit a lot of nails on the head with this post – enjoy the writing and know we will miss you on here!

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