I have just returned from a delightful week’s vacation at Chautauqua with my daughter Elizabeth and her family. We have visited there off and on for many years; last year we decided to rent a house for a week inside the Institution, a pleasant experience although the pandemic had eliminated nearly all of the regularly scheduled activities. This year was a different story. The Institution had decided to present a full slate of lectures, concerts, and other interesting events. Consequently, we found our days filled with things to do.
Each week the Institution chooses a theme and presents a morning lecture series investigating it. This week’s theme was “The Human Brain: Our Greatest Mystery”.
The first lecture was by Dr. Angus Fletcher. In it he compared the capabilities of our brains to the analytic power of artificial intelligence and high-powered supercomputers. In his judgment, nothing can ever match the ability of our brains to process emotion and creativity.
Next came a panel including political analyst Norman Ornstein, neuro-scientist Thomas Insell, and Miami District Judge Steven Leifman. They discussed the complicated relationship between mental health problems and the criminal justice system. They strongly recommended identifying mental health problems early enough to treat them, before the perpetrator was subjected to a confrontation with a policeman.
A lecture by Dr. Bianca Jones Marlin clearly explained the phenomenon of transgenerational memory of trauma – the fact that children possess the mental scars of a trauma experienced by their grandparents. And finally Dr. Anita Farahany gave an impressive lecture on a very serious subject, the ethics of bio-neuroscience, the conflict between the scientists’ ability to “read minds” and the inherent privacy of individuals.
Equally impressive was the series of concerts each day. It has been my privilege to see and hear a significant number of world-class jazz performers in my lifetime. I have assumed that that opportunity would not occur again; wrong again! Bill Charlap, easily the best jazz pianist performing today, appeared twice.
Sunday afternoon he performed with his trio, Kenny Washington on drums and Peter Washington on string bass. It probably wouldn’t be much of a stretch to classify either or both of them as world-class as well. The trio’s performance was outstanding; I particularly enjoyed “An Affair to Remember”.
Tuesday evening Charlap was joined by his wife, Renee Rosnes, a very capable jazz pianist in her own right. This was my first experience with twin jazz pianos; I found it to be exceptionally attractive. The coordination between the two virtuosos, each expertly accompanying the other, was fun to watch. My favorite of their concert was “My Funny Valentine”.
Other concerts included a very enjoyable one by the Chautauqua Pops Symphony and Ella Fitzgerald stylist Capathia Jenkins performing Big Band era popular hits, chamber music by the “Sphinx Artists”, folk rock band the Wood Brothers playing their biggest hits, and “Black Violin” attempting to entering the Guinness Book of Records for the most annoying combination of loud noise and psychedelic lights.
Another highlight of the week was the play “Thurgood”. It is an excellent one-man show depicting the life of Thurgood Marshall. When first performed on Broadway, James Earl Jones played the part of the protagonist. I am sure he was great in the part, but I doubt that his performance was any better than the actor we saw, Brian Marable. I wish my grandson, Ian, a prospective actor, could have seen the show with us.
The public relations folks at Chautauqua have coined the expression, “Chautauqua is a State of Mind”, to define the experience of spending a week at the Institution. It is indeed appropriate although the components that make up that state differ with each of us. To me it is a combination of vacation, the physical environment, the cumulative personality of the people there, and nostalgia for a time in the distant past.
Vacation is not relevant characteristic for us nonagenarians and is certainly not unique to Chautauqua, but the opportunity to experience a different way of life, even for a short time, can be appreciated by all of us.
The physical environment definitely contributes to one’s state of mind. The Institution grounds are dominated by well-preserved public buildings and residences that are well over a century old. The near-total elimination of vehicles on its streets adds greatly to its charm as a community centered on walkability. There even are broad sidewalks where bicycles are prohibited.
Although the houses are relatively small and close together, there are green spaces and parks everywhere. An obvious attempt has been made by everyone to enhance their homes with gorgeous flower beds, mostly perennials. The overall effect tempts one to go for a walk at every opportunity. On one such stroll I investigated music in the distance and was rewarded by being able to watch a rehearsal by the Community Brass Ensemble in the Hall of Philosophy.
The bulk of the people encountered on the grounds are relaxed, courteous, and friendly. It is refreshing to see expensive bicycles parked on their kickstands outside the Amphitheater with no sign of lock or chain. Although the typical age is tilted more toward mine than toward that of my grand-daughter, they are surprisingly diversified in their interests. The crowd listening to “Black Violin” was as enthusiastic as the one featuring Capathia Jenkins.
Perhaps the most significant component of this state of mind is the feeling that one is reliving a time many decades ago. Perhaps we were merely play-acting roles in a drama set in the end of the nineteenth century. If so, it certainly was a very enjoyable drama.
As we were packing up, Elizabeth commented, “It is sad to see the end of summer”. That is certainly true, but in addition it is sad to leave the Chautauqua “state of mind”. Perhaps we can find ways to preserve some part of it now that we have returned to the “real world”.
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