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George Kent, founder of the Chorus of Westerly, will retire as the group's music director at the end of its 53rd concert season in June 2012.
Kent made the announcement Thursday at the chorus' annual meeting.
"It's very sad to learn he's stepping down, but at the same time we're happy for him to have a chance to enjoy retirement," said Ryan Saunders, executive director of the chorus, who met Kent when Saunders sang with the ensemble at the age of 7. "We won't be able to replace him - he's done so much for so many people, and it's hard to think about life without him - but we're going to honor his legacy by pushing on."
Kent founded the Chorus of Westerly in 1959 when he was 21. His vision of the organization was that local residents, particularly children, would have the chance to learn and perform works from an expansive repertoire.
The Chorus of Westerly, acclaimed as one of the most prestigious and respected performing arts ensembles in New England, has expanded from its original roster of 50 singers to a membership of almost 200.
Kent was traveling Friday, but in a news release said, "I have very much appreciated everyone's support and hard work. … You have allowed me to grow and supported all the things I wanted to do. We've done some really great things. But it is time for some young blood to step in and help things continue forward."
Ryan said the chorus hopes to start a search for a replacement in about a month.
"This news came out of nowhere in the sense that George made the announcement (Thursday) night," he said. "But he's also 74 years old, and we've all discussed plans that had to be in place when this moment arrived."
Over the course of Kent's tenure, more than 2,000 people - including 1,400 children - have been members of the chorus. Their annual calendars include two classical music concerts, a Summer Pops show in Wilcox Park, a Christmas Pops series and A Celebration of Twelfth Night. The chorus has also undertaken three international tours and premiered over 10 works by notable contemporary composers.
It is one of only three choral organizations in the country that owns its own performance venue - known as the George Kent Performance Hall.
In addition to his duties with the chorus, Kent has served as organist and choirmaster at Westerly's Christ Church, has taught at area colleges and is a professor of music at the University of Rhode Island.
"George has given his blood, sweat and tears to the chorus and to Westerly and Rhode Island for five decades," Saunders said. "This is a very poignant moment for me and a lot of people. But this was his decision and there's a lot to be said for going out on top.
"I'll say this: We're certainly going to be celebrating him a lot over the next few years."
Rudi Hauser Jr., president of the Westerly-Pawcatuck Chamber of Commerce, called the news of Kent's retirement "sad, but things change in life and I'm happy for him."
"He's been wonderful for the Chorus and for the community," Hauser said. "From my perspective, he makes our job easier because organizations like the chorus make Westerly a unique jewel."
Andrew Howell, music director at St James Episcopal Church in New London and a singer and board member of the chorus, called Kent "part hero and part father figure" to many singers. "This next season will be a time of celebration and appreciation for Mr. Kent's 53 years of service to the chorus and wonderful musical leadership over that time," he said in a statement.
"It will be a challenging and exciting time as we prepare for this next phase in the life of the chorus, but I know that we all look forward to many more years of musical excellence and community building to come. I look forward to singing one final season under George's baton and to the time of transition ahead."