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A chorus of 'bravos' for George Kent

Published May 20. 2012 4:00AM

Few people have transformed a community - using neither earth movers nor commerce - quite as profoundly as George Kent. When the final cadence of Brahms' German Requiem echoes through the Westerly concert hall that bears Mr. Kent's name today, he will lay down his baton on a career that has touched countless lives, with both thrilling performances and with the invitation he extended to all to join him in creating classical music at its best.

Through his decades of devotion, Mr. Kent changed not just our sense of where we live, but of who we are.

Since Mr. Kent founded it in 1959, the Chorus of Westerly has been the vibrant model of what a community arts group can achieve. At the very least, it has given more than 2,000 people the chance to participate in the soaring art of Beethoven and Brahms at the highest level. To live an ordinary life, with ordinary pursuits, and then blossom to sing Mozart is a gift few are offered. Many had never heard a choral mass or an oratorio until they saw Mr. Kent lead the Chorus, but they came, they heard and they enlisted to have their sense of selves remade by singing on this majestic plane.

The slow transformation of Westerly into a haven for art and artists has a soundtrack: The Chorus of Westerly. Mr. Kent's devotion to his art form, his unflagging energy and his impact on the pulse of life in Westerly - from the classical concerts with orchestra and 200-voice chorus, to the short and sweet Christmas Pops, the over-the-top craziness of the Twelfth Night celebrations, and the Summer Pops in the park - rewrote the calendar for the town and showed other artists what dedication and skill can achieve.

"We started the chorus," Mr. Kent has said, "with the idea of getting kids to sing." And, by his count, about 1,400 children have learned not just to sing, but to have the discipline to contribute to a team.

Mr. Kent has said many times that anyone can sing, with the right guidance and effort, and he has always described the Chorus as an educational organization. Raised in Pawcatuck, a graduate of Stonington High School, and for decades a professor at the University of Rhode Island, Mr. Kent is a beloved musical Mr. Chips, who taught a whole town that Beethoven isn't just for fancy folks.

The Chorus of Westerly is such a bedrock of the town today, it's hard to step back and appreciate its growth and the community support Mr. Kent engendered. The group's international performance tours and the acquisition of what is now the George Kent Performance Hall were all fueled by a legion of volunteers, donating time and money to a cause he personified. The Chorus is now one of just three choral groups in the nation that owns its own concert hall.

The list of awards and honors heaped upon Mr. Kent from state, national and international institutions is too long to list. But the admiration and affection he has earned from those who know him, whether they call him "Bunky" or they call him "Mr. Kent," is perhaps his highest achievement.

A consummate musical professional, a man who can run a rehearsal for 200 musicians like clockwork, he is also a homegrown original, a classic old-school Yankee who can be forbidding one moment, then sparkling with cornball humor the next. A man committed to his faith, who is still organist and choir director at Christ Church, Mr. Kent frequently stops rehearsals to discuss the spiritual themes behind the text in Latin or German for the Haydn mass or Bach oratorio being performed.

Mr. Kent's long run leading classical choral concerts ends today with the Brahms, a powerfully moving piece that Mr. Kent cherishes. We will see him again this summer, leading Summer Pops in Wilcox Park as Westerly's Music Man. But the image of him intense and in command, with 200 singers towering over him, will be with us always. The final line of the Brahms they will sing is the ideal summation of all Mr. Kent's dedication and all he has built:

".. Sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit; denn ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach"

... "They will rest from their labors; for their deeds follow them."

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