2013 Spirit of Gainesville Award Winner: ARTS

The joy of music

In the wake of life’s challenges, this music director knows, music brings beauty


Published: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 25, 2013 at 4:55 p.m.

Music: the universal language. No matter the location or style of music or instrument, it has the power to inspire, to unify and to bring joy to a place of sorrow.

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Dr. Will Kesling, director of choral activities at the University of Florida and professor at UF’s School of Music, in the Friends of Music room at the University Auditorium.

Photo by Doug Finger

Facts

Dr. Will Kesling

CATEGORY: Arts
AGE: 65
YEARS IN GAINESVILLE: 11
WHAT DEFINES THE SPIRIT OF GAINESVILLE? “When I look at the other nominees, I see they are doing wonderful things for people in their professional life and they’re doing wonderful things in the community, in whatever way that may be.”
The work he does and why he does it: A professor and professional conductor who loves to brings music to the masses because, in the face of life’s challenges, music can provide comfort, hope, and beauty.

Here in Gainesville, music marks our most solemn occasions, joyous celebrations and the passing of seasons. From the cheers and chants of “Go Gators!” in the Swamp during football season in the fall; to the ethereal strains of the “Sounds of the Season” concert in winter; to the proud march of “Pomp and Circumstance” during spring and summer commencements — music sets the tone.

Listening to music is a given, and it’s often part of the minutia of daily life. It’s background noise during the morning commute, an energy boost during a workout at the gym, or a lullaby to hasten sleep. Music is everywhere.

And where there is music, Dr. Will Kesling often can be found.

The professor, director of Choral Activities for the University of Florida, and music director of the Gainesville Civic Chorus and Philharmonic Orchestra is known for his passion, professionalism and ability to share music with a variety of different audiences through two major local events: the “Messiah Sing-Along” and the holiday “Sounds of the Season” concert. (This year the “Messiah Sing-Along” has been replaced by a concert to honor Veterans).

Kesling also is a traveling maestro who has helped conduct choirs and orchestras across the globe. But no matter where he is, he has one goal for his audience.

“The world, in some cases, is pretty ugly. I want [the audience] to experience music for an hour … and I want them to take away something beautiful or something that has meaning for them,” Kesling says.

Many who know Kesling have seen his contributions shape this city in a positive, lasting way. For that, he’s been nominated three years in a row for the Spirit of Gainesville Award.

“Dr. Kesling’s passionate enthusiasm combined with his approachable, friendly personal style has encouraged wide community participation in creating and enjoying performances of the caliber usually found only in a large metropolis. Gainesville is truly fortunate to be able to claim Dr. Kesling as one of its prominent cultural icons,” Michele Rose Moretti, a singer with the Gainesville Civic Chorus, writes of his nomination.

Although he is known for his work at UF and with the Gainesville Civic Chorus and Philharmonic Orchestra, particularly the “Messiah Sing-Along” and “Sounds of the Season” concert in December, Kesling’s talents also have been recognized globally.

“Every day I get to make music with my students, with people in my community, and I’m really blessed to make music around the world with other people,” he admits. “There is no greater joy in this life that I can imagine, other than being loved by another person, than to make music with my neighbors in Gainesville and with people all over the world.”

That global experience includes conducting hundreds of choral groups and more than 40 professional symphony orchestras from Russia to Vienna to Canada to Brazil — including a guest conducting role with the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

But his heart is never far from home. Despite his travel schedule, Kesling says he stays connected to the community by volunteering. He serves as music director for Westminister Presbyterian Church, music chairman for the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints, and leads small choirs to nursing home events. He bestows music merit badges for the Boy Scouts of America.

“No matter how large or small or how talented the group he is working with, he has the ability to take a group of individual singers and make them into a unified choir,” writes Janet Cornelius, the corresponding secretary for the Gainesville Civic Chorus.

His ability to unite different performers is an unusual talent, and perhaps due to his own youthful aspirations to become a solo vocalist. In 1982, a baseball accident during a church picnic ended that dream and started him on the path to teaching and conducting.

“One of the guys thought he was a ‘world class’ pitcher and was heaving the ball with all of his might. One heave went wild and struck me in the throat, directly on the right side of my larynx. The right side cartilage of my voice box was cracked,” Kesling recalls.

At the time, Kesling was 34, in his fifth year of university teaching, and his goal was to sing professionally.

“The otolaryngologist said I would never sing again and...I might never speak again … If I couldn’t sing, I would have to teach others. I turned to choral and orchestral conducting.”

Fortunately, the ability to speak returned, and in a couple more years, Kesling was able to sing — but just a little.

While the loss of one’s intended career could be a source of frustration, Kesling takes the accident in stride.

“Conducting is being a solo performer in your own right,” he says. “Now I teach others to sing through the medium of a choir.”

The traveling maestro may have left a solo career behind but he’s achieved heights through conducting — garnering glowing reviews from the New York Daily News, the Washington Post and, most recently, accolades from a paper in Verona, Italy, after conducting Brahms’ “German Requiem” with a choir of performers from Florida, Colorado and Europe.

Kesling, born in Takoma Park, Maryland, prepared for this career from his studies at Lynchburg College to his doctorate from the University of Oklahoma’s School of Music and post-doc fellowship at Cambridge University in England.

He is still in great demand, whether for projects here or across the globe. He’s also at work on two books.

“I’m writing my memoir, and I’ve got a professional book about choral techniques for my students. I’d like to finish this year, but it all depends on what life gets dealt to me,” he says.

Outside of the classroom — and stage — Kesling plays tennis.

And what about other pastimes? Perhaps karaoke?

Oddly enough, the thought of getting on stage to sing is slightly nerve-wracking to the former soloist.

“People try to get me to do karaoke, but I haven’t done it much. I actually get nervous,” Kesling says.

That light-hearted, positive attitude exemplifies Kesling’s perspective on life. The cancer survivor is a widower, with a son, Shawn, and deals with the challenges of caregiving for his mother. Through it all, he remains grateful and humble.

“My adult life has been beautiful and difficult at the same time,” he admits, noting the passing of his wife of 38 years, and his mother’s challenges with advanced Alzheimer’s.

“Music has kept me going, and making music with other human beings has kept me going. I hope somewhere along the way that in making music with other people, I have helped others keep going in this crazy world.”

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