Behind the music

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Photo courtesy of Carlo Cotrone Grace Urbanski, English professor and soloist, with Carlo Cotrone

At first glance, Grace Mazza Urbanski, Peter Mulvey and Mark Konewko seem like ordinary individuals. Urbanski is the proud mother of five, Mulvey rides his bike to work and Konewko is a college professor. However, two significant forces tie them together and set them apart from the average Joe — music and Marquette.

Grace Mazza Urbanski

Urbanski is an English professor at Marquette whose dream has always been to be the voice of a Disney animated feature character. Although she has yet to achieve that goal, Urbanski has grown to use her voice in a far more fulfilling way.

She is a passionate soloist, and when she is not teaching, she is performing throughout Milwaukee, singing at funerals and weddings, and offering voice lessons out of her home.

“I’ve always been a singer,” Urbanski said. “I started the violin in third grade and the flute in fourth grade, but singing has always been my first passion.”

Urbanski received a full scholarship to attend Marquette, but she said committing was a difficult decision because of the university’s lack of a music program.

“I had to decide whether to go to school for free and focus on my academics or go to another school that had a strong music program,” Urbanski said. “So, Marquette won.”

Urbanski pursued a major in theater arts, but she continued to nurture her passion for music. During her time at Marquette, she sang in all the choirs and played in both the band and orchestra. But that was not enough to satisfy Urbanski’s love for singing, so she began taking voice lessons in Milwaukee.

After completing graduate school at Marquette, Urbanski was offered a position in the English department. She now leads the busy life of a professor, mother and wife, but still makes room for singing.

“It doesn’t feel like a stressful demand on my time but a requirement for being a well-rounded human being,” Urbanski said. “I just think people feel like they are too busy. I know it will delight me to do it, and people can’t be afraid of doing something because it’s delightful. Do it not because it’s useful, but because it’s beautiful.”

Carlo Cotrone, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Marquette, met Urbanski in 1992 when the two sang in the Marquette Chorus. They have remained friends and continue to collaborate musically.

Cotrone organizes an annual performance at the Kenwood United Methodist Church near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee called the Christmas Around the World Concert Series, and Urbanski performs in it every year. He also accompanies Urbanski’s students on organ, piano and harpsichord for their annual recital.

“She really loves music for its own sake, and that translates into her being a joy to work with and collaborate with,” Cotrone said. “She just loves the experience of sharing music with people, and that is reflected in her performance and in her personality.”

In addition to performing in concerts throughout Milwaukee, Urbanski said she likes singing at more humble venues like weddings and funerals where the emphasis is not on her. She said in these settings she knows her voice is bringing others comfort, and that is what is important.

“That is something I stress with my voice students too,” Urbanski said. “My goal is not for them to move to New York and make it; my goal is to help them understand the role of music, their gift, in a full life.”

Peter Mulvey

Mulvey, an acclaimed folk singer/songwriter, has deep, long-standing ties with Marquette. His mother studied journalism there, and his uncle, John McCabe, taught in the English department from 1966 to 1999. Mulvey pursued a major in theater arts and graduated in 1991. He called his experience at Marquette “delightful.”

“We made really great art and I got an education that I still remember and I still draw on,” Mulvey said.

While at Marquette, Mulvey honed his musical talents of singing and songwriting. He played in a band in Milwaukee and solo in the streets of Dublin while studying abroad. After graduating, he moved to Boston and played guitar and sang in the subway.

“That’s all I’ve ever done,” Mulvey said. “That’s all I do now.”

Since then, Mulvey has released 12 albums and toured nationally and internationally. He said music has been his principle focus since he left Marquette, and he has been fortunate enough to be able to make a living out of it.

Although most of his projects have a folk sound, none of his albums have quite the same feel. But one thing is consistent — they’re catchy.

“I do very acoustic records, very electric records, more jazz records, more rock records or really folkie records,” Mulvey said. “More of the same for me tends to mean all over the map.”

One reason for this may be that Mulvey draws inspiration from all over the place. From astrophysics to Buddhism to mortality, anything Mulvey is exposed to is fair game. His latest album, “Letters from a Flying Machine,” is heavily based off of letters Mulvey has written to his nieces and nephews over the years.

“It’s been my way of keeping in touch with them,” Mulvey said. “I don’t have kids of my own, and it occurred to me that a good old-fashioned letter is kind of an anchor in life. I think it can ground you in the present to know that you have a letter, a piece of paper, that someone cared to write to you.”

In addition to writing and playing music, Mulvey has always loved biking.

“One day I was thinking, ‘I wish I could bike to work,’” Mulvey said. “And that little voice said, ‘You can’t?’”

So, Mulvey began touring by bike, scheduling in one long-distance tour each fall. The farthest tour he has traveled by bike was in 2009 when he rode out to Boston and back to Milwaukee.

Mulvey has achieved what everyone likely hopes to — he has made a career out of something he loves, and he isn’t quitting any time soon. For a self-described “lazy writer,” Mulvey has a lot of records to show for all his work.

Mark Konewko

Konewko is the interim Marquette Chorus Director and is in his 12th year as Carillonneur at Marquette. His office is tucked away on the fifth floor of Marquette Hall — you have to take the elevator to the fourth floor and climb the stairs up, but it’s worth the trek. His love for music is apparent; his office is decorated with bells from all over the world and his new practice carillon is situated just behind his desk.

The ringing of the bells heard on campus every 15 minutes is mechanical, but any time there is music coming from the tower, like the whimsical “Harry Potter” tune, that is Konewko playing manually. Konewko has always been fascinated by music, especially medieval and contemporary pieces, and has successfully made it the focus of his life.

“I think it started when I was four and was very captivated by making music,” Konewko said. “I’ve always loved it.”

Konewko studied organ performance at DePaul University and earned his Masters of Music Degree in organ performance from the American Conservatory of Music. His organ teacher at DePaul, Robert Lodine, was the Carillonneur at the University of Chicago and sparked his interest in the instrument.

“Immediately I was captivated and begged him, ‘Please, show me how to do this,’” Konewko said. “So I started studying with him.”

Konewko received a scholarship from the University of Utrecht in Holland and traveled there to further study carillon. When he returned, he became one of the Carillonneurs at the University of Chicago and eventually made his way to Marquette.

The instrument is set up like a piano, but instead of keys, there are wooden batons and pedals connected to the bells by wires. To create sound, the batons are played with one’s fists. Marquette’s carillon is set up in a small room above the large bells and below the smaller ones, so when Konewko plays, the bells essentially surround him.

Though Konewko’s training has been in classical organ and carillon, he has been involved in singing and conducting for more than 40 years. He is the director of music at Mother of Good Counsel Catholic Parish in Milwaukee and stepped in last year as interim director of the Marquette Chorus.

“There is just a phenomenal amount of talent in the students here,” Konewko said. “It continually blows me away. There are wonderful students, very motivated, very driven, some very fine musicians here.”

Lauren Whittaker, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences and a member of the Marquette Chorus, said Konewko is an excellent leader and has brought a refreshing new dynamic to the choir.

Konewko said despite the lack of a music major, the administration recognizes the importance of music at Marquette.

“They saw that this carillon was a gem and just needed to be cleaned up, and we still have a way to go, but they are very conscientious of being good stewards of this fine instrument,” Konewko said.

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