George Kent returns to conduct the Chorus of Westerly

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Westerly -- Nearly 60 years after first striding to the podium to lead The Chorus of Westerly in its first concert, George Kent returned triumphantly Saturday night to a hall now named after him to conduct the exact same Handel piece that started it all, earning a heartfelt standing ovation and a cascade of "bravos" from a full house.

Now in his 80s, Kent formed the chorus as a 22-year-old, building the singing ensemble into a world-class organization that has put on about 750 concerts in nine countries to a total audience of 1.2 million, according to Ryan Saunders, executive director.

"Right here in Westerly, you've done that," Saunders said in a pre-concert talk.

It started in September 1959 with a small notice in The Westerly Sun noting that the chorus would be for both children and adults, a rare conjunction that continues to this day. Since then, Saunders said, about 2,500 singers have cycled through what previously was known as the Westerly Community Chorus, while the chorus has raised millions of dollars to buy and renovate the former church where it performs, now known as the George Kent Performance Hall.

Kent retired in 2012, and the chorus is currently directed by Andrew Howell. But it was Kent whom many in the audience Saturday were longing to see, and he didn't disappoint, guiding the 190-voice ensemble through a beautiful rendition of selections from George Frideric Handel's "Dettingen te Deum." The New England Symphony Orchestra provided the perfect texture for Handel, especially the fine trumpet section and its perfectly tempered brass colorings, and the chorus added spine-tingling power and beautiful harmonies to these profoundly religious songs.

Second on the program was Johannes Brahms' "Nanie," a lush and dynamically interesting piece that Howell played for all its subtle drama, wringing out a feeling of hushed reverence.

But the real crowd-pleaser came at the end as Howell led first the orchestra alone and then the orchestra and chorus in the second and fourth movements of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The scherzo movement was beautifully played with its trotting tempo and beautifully orchestrated theme that MacDonald kept a firm rein on.

He took the fourth movement, "Ode to Joy," very fast - perhaps faster than the players anticipated as they appeared to be a little behind at first, but once they caught up and the singers entered with an emphatic "Freude," it all settled in to an amazingly powerful performance. This was thanks in part to guest vocalists Tracy Cox, Daniel Weeks, Heather Johnson and Ron Lloyd, who made for a dynamic and entertaining quartet but also combined voices in several other spicy concoctions.

The audience erupted into a final standing ovation to honor the conclusion of both the spring concert and the season series.




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