URI’s George Kent wins ovations for his musical outreach

Media Contact: Jan Wenzel, 874-2116

KINGSTON, R.I. — November 4, 2003 — Say the name George Kent anywhere in Rhode Island and people will generally respond in a chorus of voices. That’s because the University of Rhode Island professor of music and the Chorus of Westerly, which he founded 42 years ago and continues to conduct, have become synonymous.

Thanks to Kent, generations of Ocean Staters have come to know and appreciate good music and the man who has brought it to them.

Because of his lasting commitment to music performance and to music education, this soft-spoken musician who prefers to shift the spotlight to others, has been recognized by two different organizations. The New England Conservatory where Kent earned his master’s degree, honored him last month with its “2003 Outstanding Alumni Award.”

A second honor will come in January when the Charlestown resident is presented the 2004 Arts & Business Council of Rhode Island “Individual Achievement Award” during the council’s annual dinner.

“George Kent is a cultural icon in Rhode Island who has enhanced the quality of our lives through his exemplary contributions to the performing arts, says Winifred Brownell, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “His history-making excellence in musicianship and leadership for over a third of a century made it possible for the Chorus of Westerly to become a renowned performing arts organization that presents a challenging, diverse, and inspiring repertoire. We are very fortunate indeed that Professor Kent is on the music faculty at the University.”

As an undergraduate at URI, Kent became and remains the organist and choirmaster of Christ Episcopal Church in Westerly. He founded The Chorus of Westerly as an offshoot of the Christ Church choir. “I thought that a chorus would provide an opportunity for people to sing other than on a Sunday morning,” he says.

The ecumenical Chorus of Westerly was formed in 1959 with 48 members and now boasts 180. Children, ages 8 and above, are full members. “They should be exposed to and allowed to sing major works,” he says. “Only three other choruses in the country do that.” Chorus members represent all ages. Kent’s 93-year-old father is still a chorus member.

Kent’s own musical life began in second grade when a dentist told his family that playing the trumpet would help to prevent buck teeth. From 1969 to 1985, Kent toured with Edward Tarr, a Swiss trumpet virtuoso, presenting concerts and workshops in the United States and aboard.

Over the years many of Kent’s URI students have become members of the chorus. Generations are common. “We have children of children,” says the proud professor who teaches music history, applied trumpet, organ, and occasionally the harpsichord.

Defining what makes a good conductor he says: “You have to have a good ear. And you have to make snap decisions, you’re always shaping. It’s really an existential thing. Each concert is different and it should be.

“You’re constantly working on balance,” the conductor says, noting that he holds auditions for new members once a year and also holds one-on-one auditions with chorus members to see if any fine tuning is needed.

The chorus now has its own historic performance hall, the former Immaculate Conception Church on High Street which seats 480. The Chorus toured Europe three times, twice in England and once in Italy, performing in such places as Westminster Abbey in London and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The Chorus performs two major works each year, a Christmas Pops, and a Summer Pops. In addition, a 12th night theater piece has been added. A Bach concert is planned for Nov. 23.

“We have a rich heritage of music. It needs to be performed. People need to know about it,” says University of Rhode Island’s music ambassador. “I think it’s good for our quality of life.”