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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: The musical prism of Kent Paulsen of De Pere, Part 1

Critic At Large

College, community and church music director/performer/teacher/overseer, etc.

Scene from a “Holiday Pops” with chorale, orchestra and dancers at Green Bay’s Weidner Center. (Josh Fields)

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Cutting to the chase with Kent Paulsen:

“One of the great lessons that I had is I can’t decide if I’d rather be a music theater director or a choral production director or a church musician or a performer or a singer or a teacher – and that I’m really blessed to be in a position now where I can do all of those.”

With a prism, one beam becomes many. Shine a beam on Kent Paulsen, and the array spans these roles involving music:

+ Artistic director of Dudley Birder Chorale of St. Norbert College.

+ Director of Knights on Broadway show troupe of St. Norbert College.

+ Music leader and organist at Calvary Lutheran Church of Green Bay.

+ Administrator of Youth Orchestra Program of St. Norbert College.

+ Music director for Music Theatre of St. Norbert College.

+ Singer in concerts and for weddings and funerals.

+ Performer on piano and keyboards.

At present the beam is warped by the coronavirus COVID-19, which prompted interviews to take place by telephone from Kent Paulsen’s home and his St. Norbert College office, both in De Pere. The coronavirus messed up his calendars and yet provided a bonus:

“I know there’s a lot of disappointment that so many events and performances were canceled. We were a just couple days away from the Youth Orchestra concert. We were about a week away from a big chorale concert. We were just three days away from Knights on Broadway getting on a plane and going to Florida. And so this has decimated all performances and those elements of the calendar.

“But on a positive side, for me, I’ve spent more time at home and with my family and eating dinner with my family I think than I have in years. The coronavirus switched the calendar to a lot of Zoom meetings and Google hangouts and finding new ways to try to do the work that we’re doing but in a very different way. So, it’s a lot fewer hours of nights and weekends just with all the shows canceled and gigs canceled and things like that.”

Paulsens at home – Kent, Miles, Eli, Gretchen and Emily. (Betsy Srubas)

The calendar seemingly has a firm date for the postponed “Mozart Masterpieces” by the Dudley Birder Chorale at Weidner Center for the Performing Arts… seemingly.

“We do have a date for that in January, but, I think I’ve revised our schedule for performances about six times already, and a lot of it is dependent on so many moving parts.

“There’s been a lot of national surveys among potential audience members that show less than half of audience members would likely return to an indoor concert until there’s a vaccine. So we’re looking at all sorts of things about pre-recording, live streaming or social distancing for audiences.

“So there’s a lot of plans but nothing definite because if we’ve learned one thing over the last three months is that you can make great plans, and then a week later everything else changes.”

One thing is firm – the past – and the story of how music started for Kent Paulsen.

“My twin brother and I are number five and number six. We grew up in Wausau.

“In fact, every one of my older brothers and sisters were forced to – or got to, depending on who you ask – take piano lessons from an older lady who lived two doors down from our house.

“My mom was always a singer. She still sings to this day but not out in public anymore. And so we grew up with music in the house.

“She wanted to take piano when she was a kid. It was during the Depression and World War II, so she never got to do that.

“Depending on the day – what the story is about why she didn’t get to do that – she wanted to make sure all of the kids could do it.

With mother Dorothy. (Emily Paulsen)

“So I started taking piano lessons at age 5 with Adele Gansz, who lived two doors down from us. We’d walked over to her house, and I could get there early and watch some of the Cubs games on TV before the piano lessons.

“She was my first, and really only piano teacher. She had spent her younger years improvising piano music to silent films and played a kind of boogie-woogie. So early on she kind of lit the fire with me and recognized that I kind of liked to play but not necessarily play all the notes that were written. And so her incentive was always I’d practice my lesson and get done all of the pieces I had to get done in time, and then we could use the rest of the lesson for improvising and reading chords and making things up and boogie-woogie and things like that. So that’s kind of where I got my start.

“And I’d say the other huge thing for me was in high school my high school choir teacher, a wonderful, delightful, kind man, Jeff Krause, who just passed away last year, sort of lit a fire in me and a love and a passion for choral music.”

First, there were other priorities.

“As a kid, I was absolutely certain that I was going to be a professional baseball or basketball player. Absolutely. And then when I got into high school, I thought I would be a math or history teacher. So, things didn’t come to play. And then when I went to college, I started out as a band major and a trumpet major.”

College was Lawrence University in Appleton, with a lot of teachers who tripped his musical trigger.

“I’ve always counted myself lucky that I’ve had several teachers along the way that really inspired me. And when I moved to Green Bay, I got to work with some fantastic giants of not just the previous generation but two generations before me that inspired me and led me on my path. Miro and Dudley and Marshall Moss.

– Miro was Miroslav Pansky, a native of Czechoslovakia (previous name) who skirted the Soviet Union invasion and wound up conducting the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra and creating the phenomenal Pamiro Opera Company, somewhat with smoke and mirrors.

– Dudley is Dudley Birder, who taught forever at St. Norbert College and created Music Theatre and the Swinging Knights and helped create the Collegiate Chorale, which eventually became the choir that bears his name.

– Marshall Moss was the St. Norbert College singing master, co-founder of the Collegiate Chorale, powerful singer and shaper of careers for talent that rose to international rank.

With Marshall Moss.

Kent Paulsen deals with the most people with the Dudley Birder Chorale of St. Norbert College. A performance can encompass approximately 150 singers from 30 Northeastern Wisconsin communities, an orchestra of varying sizes depending on the concert and hundreds or thousands of audience members. The latter is notably for the popular “Holiday Pops” at Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.

“We just finished up our second season of my being artistic director of the Birder Chorale – and I guess by default the administrator of all the work of the chorale. My part in that would be to pick the concerts in conjunction with our board of directors, hire orchestra and soloists, get the music ready, rehearse, do the contracts for different locations where we perform and put those programs together as a season.”

How Kent Paulsen came into that at position “is a long story. I first sang with the chorale in 1996. And then sometime after the early 2000s, I became the accompanist. And then a few years after that, I became the assistant director. So I’ve been a part of the chorale for more than 24 years.

“Those positions have gradually expanded. For the last several years as Dudley was nearing the end of his career, he started to hand over more and more of the duties.

“We worked closely for many, many years. There were years when I spent more time with Dudley than with my wife on a daily basis during the week. So I was really influenced by his passion and vision for what the chorale would look like and could do.”

With Dudley Birder at concert in St. Norbert Abbey Church. (Emily Paulsen)

As Kent Paulsen stands on the podium in the midst of a sea of performers, his head is wrapped into “a combination of wanting to make sure that I’m on top of all of the elements for ‘Holiday Pops’ or Mozart – when we’re the Weidner and we’ve got 300 people with singers and an orchestra and a big audience – just trying to be aware of all of the elements that are happening.

“To be present and active in the moment is always a challenge because you want to make sure that things are running smoothly, and that if something isn’t quite right, you can fix it instantly. And so a lot of times, that’s the focus. But I’m extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to do what I do.

“A lot of times what will go through my head is, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this. This is really a lot of fun.’ And there’s also a lot of joy to it.

“I’ve had many teachers over the years who have really inspired me. When I first came to town, I worked with Miro, and he always talked about that the best way to be present in the moment or to enjoy an experience is to focus on the music – not necessarily on how it’s being made – and just let that experience carry you away.

“So you’re kind of zooming in between a really close look at the tree and then zooming out in a big look at the forest. You’re kind of going back and forth on that all the time.

“But, yeah, where my head is is kind of dangling between, ‘Oh, I want to make sure that that person gets the f-sharp clearly right on beat three-and-a-half’ and ‘Oh my gosh, this is a wonderful experience that 150 people are singing Mendelssohn in German and that three months ago they didn’t think they could do’.”

Also in the serious music world of Kent Paulsen is his association with Calvary Lutheran Church.

“I’ve been there for about 20 years. I am the worship and music coordinator, the senior choir director and organist. So it’s a lot of weekly planning and coordinating of all the elements that go into worship, and then overseeing the music teams, directing the senior choir and then planning for three services a Sunday…

At Calvary Lutheran Church. (Rufus Kudee)

“I married a Calvary Lutheran girl (Emily Terrell Paulsen). As we were dating, they had an opening for a choir director, and so I started as a choir director. I was there for a few years as a choir director when the organist and music coordinator left, so I added those responsibilities as well.

“So I got married at Calvary and started working there, and all my kids have been baptized and confirmed there.”

Kent Paulsen also is cantor during services and sings at weddings and funerals at Calvary Lutheran Church and other churches.

“And my wife and I love to sing together.”

The Paulsens sing home concerts weekly on Facebook, often to benefit local arts organizations.

The singing Paulsens.

Also tucked away among musical things Kent Paulsen does is playing keyboard in touring Broadway musical engagements at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton.

“One of the things that I do that I really am thankful for that helps challenge me as music theater professional is the opportunity to sub in on some of the Broadway touring shows that come through Appleton. It’s a lot of work and a lot of practice and a lot of stress because oftentimes the rest of the pit has played the show a thousand times, and you’re doing it for the first time without a lot of rehearsal. But it really gives me a great experience to see the whole process of what the professional world looks like in great detail.

“A lot of the touring shows use keyboards as a supplement for orchestra members that they can’t travel with, so you’re constantly changing sounds as you go through the show.

“It’s always a challenge because keyboard for Broadway shows involve a lot of technology. A lot of that gives me the inspiration for different technologies we can look at and incorporate into our music productions here.

“The last show I played at the PAC was ‘Miss Saigon,’ and that was just a couple weeks before the pandemic. Before that, I played ‘Les Miz’ at the PAC, and it’s kind of neat story. When you’re the only local sub like I was for ‘Les Miz’ on keyboard, you don’t get a rehearsal. You get to have one show where you sit next to the guy you’re going to sub for and watch what he’s doing. So I showed up to sub for ‘Les Miz,’ and one of the keyboard players had thrown out his back and wasn’t able to do the performance. So without having audited as a rehearsal, I got to play. I ended up doing a couple shows that weekend. The nice thing that happened is two months later, they hired me to go out to San Diego and play a week of the show because someone needed a vacation. So that was pretty great. It was able to bring Emily, my wife, along and have sort of a working vacation in San Diego for a week. “

In the PAC orchestra pit, Kent Paulsen naturally gets into conversations with the touring musicians.

At keyboard in the orchestra pit for “Beautiful” at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. (Emily Paulsen)

“A lot of times, they’ll say they love what they’re doing, but they get a little bored with doing the same show every night. For a lot of them, the travel element of going to these cities is an enjoyment for them.

“But a lot of them mention how much they like the ability that I have of putting a lot of variety to the performances that I get to do.”

Tomorrow: Kent Paulsen explores the showbiz side of what he does with Music Theatre and his Knights on Broadway.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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