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County native returns to roots as Chautauqua organist

Photo by Dave Munch Joshua Stafford sits at the console of the Massey Memorial Pipe Organ at Chautauqua Institution during the institution’s filming of the first Sunday Worship Service.

CHAUTAUQUA — Joshua Stafford can still remember the first time he heard the sound of the Massey Memorial Pipe Organ.

“It was a three-day organ camp — ‘Pedals, Pipes and Pizza’ — and we were taken up to Chautauqua Institution,” he remembered of the summer of 1999. “That was when I heard the Massey for the first time. Then we all got to honk around for a little bit after that. I was totally mesmerized by it.”

Little did the then-11-year-old Stafford know how much that day would change his life –21 years removed from his first visit to the Chautauqua Amphitheater’s century-old gem and well over a decade since he was in the area last, the 2006 Jamestown High School graduate is back in Chautauqua County serving as the institution’s interim organist.

“It definitely feels like a full-circle moment,” he said. “It’s so strange to wander around and think that 20 years ago I was this little kid just looking up in awe of this fantastic organ in the Amphitheater and here I am now.”

The assignment, however, comes under an umbrella of melancholy and mixed emotions: Stafford is succeeding one of his many musical mentors and teachers, the late Jared Jacobsen, who passed away suddenly two days after the conclusion of the 2019 assembly last August. Compounded with the convention of this year’s assembly remotely online due to the outbreak of COVID-19, Stafford admitted that these were not the circumstances in which he envisioned his dream playing out.

“It was always a childhood fantasy that maybe someday I could succeed Jared, but with his loss and the impacts of COVID, it’s a very strange way to begin my time here,” he said.

Stafford last saw Jacobsen last summer for the first time in a decade during a trip to the institution as a recitalist for the American Guild of Organists. After his recital, Jacobsen invited him to play Handel’s “Largo” from the opera Xerxes, a staple at each week’s Sacred Song Service. Those in attendance recall witnessing Jacobsen having been moved to tears.

“As I was leaving, I gave him this big hug and he just said, ‘I’m so proud of you, kiddo,'” Stafford recalled. “That was it. It’s a pretty fantastic final memory.”

Stafford’s musical career began almost by default — around the age of six doctors had diagnosed a problem in his left leg as evidence of a rare bone disorder called Companacchi’s disease, meaning that he would be unable to play a lot of sports that other children at his age would have played. His parents arranged for him to take piano lessons with teacher Bobbi Lange instead.

But, it was the pipe organ that continued to leave him in awe.

“When I was a kid, we went to First Covenant Church in Jamestown and I’d usually go with my grandparents and I loved listening to the organ,” he said. “I would insist that we would have to be to church before the prelude was over or we were definitely late — I was very concerned about that.”

But, it wasn’t until after the experience, organized by the American Guild of Organists, at Chautauqua that Stafford’s young career began to blossom after being approached by the late organist of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, R. Richard Corbin.

“He was so great to me,” he said of Corbin’s influence. “I was this kid who knew nothing about what I was doing, but he said, ‘Show up and start practicing,’ and within a month he had me playing for services at St. Luke’s — they had this two-rank organ that he would let me play along on this little organ while he played which was a great and fairly unobtrusive way for me to get the hang of things.”

But while Corbin provided an outlet through which Stafford’s young passion could flourish, he refused to serve as the latter’s teacher.

“He was there to mentor me and not to teach me and he always connected me with teachers, both in Jamestown and up in Chautauqua and Buffalo,” he said, crediting the village of teachers who guided his development in addition to Corbin and Jacobsen: Donna Gatz, Jack Hemink, Helga Hulse and James Bigham.

He also credited the music department at Jamestown High School, notably A Cappella Choir directors Brian Bogey and Norm Lydell, for adding to his development.

“One of the remarkable things about Jamestown, at least my impression of it, was it’s a town that took the arts as seriously as sports,” he said. “I don’t know many other towns like that. My experience with JHS and the A Cappella Choir was very formative for me and being able to make great music every day, getting to have a place that just felt like home there.”

He added, “When I tell friends about my high school choir and about how we wore liturgical vestments and performed sacred music at a vespers service across the street in the big Lutheran church, they just don’t understand. ‘This is a public school? How does this work?’ they’ll ask. It’s Jamestown. It works.”

He then was granted a full-tuition scholarship into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia — one of the most selective higher education institutes in the world with an acceptance rate of approximately 4% — joining an organ department of just four students.

After completing his master’s degree at Yale University, he relocated to Washington, D.C. for a year before settling at his current post as Director of Music at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey.

“It’s really sort of a dream job,” he said, noting that he oversees a chorister program, a semi-professional adult choir all within the confines of a building designed by McKim, Meade & White, architects of the original Penn Station and Boston Public Library.

“The organ is unaltered Skinner and one of the finest in the country,” he said. “And they give me housing next door. … It’s ridiculous to have that, but then to have that, plus (Chautauqua) is really ridiculous. And I get to travel and play recitals all over the place. I do feel like I’m living the dream.”

The pinnacle of his career occurred four years ago when “his meticulous technique, innate yet highly mature musicality, and constant musical engagement” earned him, out of 12 stellar competitors, the Pierre S. du Pont First Prize Winner of the Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition and a cash award of $40,000.

“That was a major career boost for me,” he said of the recognition which also earned him a contract with Phillip Truckenbrod Concert Artists.

“I had hoped that things would go well and that I’d be able to play concerts and it has turned out to be so much more than I had already hoped for,” Stafford said. “People always ask ‘What’s next for you?’ and I’m just like, ‘I don’t know … It’s already so good.’ But I guess right now, it’s Chautauqua that’s next. It feels very right for me to be here. Chautauqua is a place that values connections.”

Asked to describe his current employer, he — like anyone else to whom the question is posed — struggled to find the right words.

“I can’t think of many places where the organ is the center of the village,” he said. “It’s like NPR goes to church camp … To be able to play the organ in concert while listening to the birds chirping and feeling a gentle breeze come across the Amphitheater is amazing.”

But, Stafford is cognizant of a separate role — the guardian of a beloved instrument that has delighted audiences and worshippers from all over the world for decades, a role first taught to him by his late friend and mentor whose spirit can still be felt in the halls of Chautauqua’s crown jewel.

“When I went into the Amphitheater for the first time this summer, I sat down at the organ, turned it on, and this great rainstorm came thundering down and I thought, ‘Oh this is amazing. This is such a moment,'” Stafford said. “And then, I put my fingers down and then nothing happened. The (organ’s) blower had been disconnected.

“I felt for certain that was Jared having a good laugh.”

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