Written by Karen Mahoney, Special to your Catholic HeraldThursday, 24 January 2013 12:34
The image projected through composer and music editor Peter Kolar is one of an effortless expression of worship and prayer flowing from his soul through his fingertips.
The music comes in waves — technical and ethereal. Though Kolar is playing the piano, it is as if his music is a private exchange between God and him, offering listeners a sacred glimpse into their friendship.
His road to senior editor of Hispanic music and publications for J.S. Paluch’s division of World Library Publications is a journey that the Detroit native seems to have begun before he was born. His Polish-American father was a self-taught accordionist and his brothers and sisters all played musical instruments.
“At a very early age, I was already performing as part of our family polka band,” he explained. “In second grade, I began formal piano lessons from Sr. Cordula Neu, a Racine Dominican who was stationed at our Detroit-area parish when I was growing up. I even played for my own First Communion Mass. By sixth grade, I was playing regular Sunday Masses with the parish folk group.”
Playing in church was a major facet of Kolar’s musical formation as he learned to sight-read and grasp new pieces quickly, as well as learning the art of arranging songs and improvising. By the time he left his childhood home to attend St. Lawrence High School Seminary, an all boys Catholic boarding school in Mt. Calvary, he was prepared to serve as a liturgical musician.
“For my four years at SLS, I was the primary accompanist for the choir and all the liturgies and prayer services,” he said. “Msgr. Joe Diermeier was the rector and choir director at the time, and the experience of playing under his direction was a valuable one.”
Currently the pastor of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Marathon, Msgr. Diermeier describes Kolar as humble, personable, interesting, talented and loyal.
“Peter had good friends in high school when I knew him and he maintains many of those friendships. I have been fortunate in that over the years, Peter and I have continued to communicate with each other quite often,” said Msgr. Diermeier. “Working with him as the choir director, I found him to be diligent, responsible, and delightful to work with. Even now, years later, as I dabble a bit with music, Peter has been very kind to assist me with his skills.”
Though he received no formal piano instruction throughout his high school years, as there was no music teacher on staff at the time, Kolar seemed to hone his skills naturally, while learning the nuances of choral harmony, cantoring and leading an assembly from the keyboard. His “on the job” liturgical music experience adequately prepared him to pass the entrance audition into the piano performance program at Northwestern University in 1991.
Moving from Detroit to the calm, placid rural Mt. Calvary was an abrupt change for Kolar, however, the change was transforming musically, academically and spiritually.
“My lasting impressions of the Wisconsin scenery are of lush green forests, and portraits of tranquil fields, winding streams, and rolling hills,” he said, adding. “The approach to Mt. Calvary on County Road W is still as impressive today as it was the first time. Admittedly, the beauty of the place was a factor in my wanting to escape to this far-off paradise to spend my high school years there.”
As a student, Kolar’s parents could only afford to make two trips to Wisconsin each year, once to drop him off and once to pick him up at the end of the school year. However, those trips provided fond memories that have lasted a lifetime.
“My favorite part was always the ‘stretch of green’ from Milwaukee to Fond du Lac,” he said. “I fondly recall stops at Kettle Moraine State Park, the fascinating Milwaukee interchange with the building in the middle of it, and, of course, a requisite stop at the Mars Cheese Castle for that Wisconsin treasure we couldn’t get anywhere else.”
Academically, Kolar was an exemplary student, but managed to capture the attention of world history and American government teacher, Jeffrey Krieg, who was impressed for other reasons.
“He was bright, curious and extremely talented and had a serious interest in music, even as a freshman, so it is not surprising to me that his successful career path has been in that field,” he explained. “I play classical music in my classroom and Peter was one of the few students who could recognize pieces and speak intelligently about them.”
While he was honing his musical and academic skills, his spiritual life grew exponentially, and did not go unnoticed by Msgr. Diermeier, who is not surprised with Kolar’s journey.
“I saw in his past and continue to see now that Peter’s faith plays a very important part in his life,” he said. “I would describe Peter as an individual who knows that the origin of his talents come from God’s inspiration. Now that he is married and raising a family, I believe that Peter places his trust in God’s continued guidance for his life and the life of his family. I expected that Peter would rise to some significant height in his musical career.”
Kolar attributes most of his success and growth in his faith to the influence of others in his life. In the beginning, Sr. Neu shared her inspiration and love of music with him, and he retained a long friendship with her until she died in 2001 at the age of 104.
“I was able to visit her at the Siena Center when I was living in Chicago,” he said. “It was a delightful visit, and even though she was blind by then, she had me lead her around the place in her wheelchair instructing me where to go at every turn. Before I left, I had the chance to play for her one last time. She and I sat alone in the chapel as I performed a Beethoven sonata, one that she taught me. It was truly humbling because she has been responsible for so much of what I learned as a pianist. The following week, I received word from her superior that she passed peacefully in her sleep.”
While studying music at Northwestern, a former SLS classmate from Chicago invited Kolar to his parish, Holy Cross-Immaculate Heart of Mary. While there, he was introduced to the parish priest, Fr. Bruce Wellems, who quickly asked for his assistance in teaching music at the parish, the marimba ensemble in particular.
“So every weekend during my college years, I would commute from suburban Evanston deep into the inner-city “Back of the Yards” neighborhood of Chicago — it was primarily a Hispanic neighborhood, and worked with the marimba section, children’s choir and play Sunday Masses,” he explained. “I ended up staying there for almost 15 years, eventually becoming the parish music director, and living in the neighborhood.”
His involvement at Holy Cross Parish is the catalyst that launched his interest in Hispanic ministry, and despite not speaking fluent Spanish, (he studied Spanish at SLS and Northwestern) he learned by immersion — playing Masses in Spanish and teaching the music to the parish.
“Apart from the musical component, the most lasting impression I have of the community is of its faith in the midst of real hardship,” he said. “In a neighborhood mired in violence, gangs and poverty, the people’s faith was unwavering. Every Sunday the huge church was filled. And the celebrations were vibrant and wonderful — even if a little noisy and chaotic. The community really knew how to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe, las posadas, and el viacrucis (Stations of the Cross) with grand festivities involving countless families.”
Meanwhile, toward the end of his graduate studies, Kolar was approached by one of the major Catholic publishers in the nation, Chicago-based World Library Publications, who was looking to fill its Hispanic music editor position.
“The job virtually landed in my lap. God is good; and in this case, it seems he steered me very deliberately down this particular path. I am now going on 17 years with WLP, and currently oversee the Hispanic publications department as senior editor. Before encountering this line of work, I would never have known that a position such as this existed that combines music, liturgy, and Hispanic Ministry,” he said. “Virtually, everything I do professionally, boils down to service for the church — whether it’s composing music, or preparing music resources such as hymnals and missalettes that will be used in parishes, or presenting workshops; it is all about minister to God’s people. My ‘job’ is integrally tied to this; the ministerial aspect is what guides my work, without it, it has little merit or value. Likewise, it is satisfying to see my work then impact the ministerial efforts of others.”
Kolar resides in the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, and he directs the 100-member diocesan choir. He has also started a Music Ministry Formation program for the diocese, through which musicians receive certification in their ministry.
Occasionally, Kolar returns to Wisconsin for SLS reunions and to visit friends. He has also served as a clinician for the Milwaukee Archdiocese at its liturgy conference, for Saint Francis Seminary and for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians Conference when it was held in Milwaukee in 2005.
He and his wife Mariana are the parents of two children, Chloe, 4, and Karla, 18 months. While he has few precious moments to relax, he does sneak away now and then to practice the piano, learning a new classical piece, if time permits. Recently, he devoted time to creating “Variations,” his first solo piano album.
“My daughters are the loves of my life and my CD is dedicated to them,” he said. “I would play the piano for each of them before they were born, and my wife could always feel them moving around in her belly as soon as they heard the music. Last year, when I was preparing for the recording, I would often practice at night before they went to bed, and inevitably, it would help settle them down and sleep. Both daughters already have a keen musical sense; whether they go on to become musicians or not, music will always be part of their lives.”