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A Yellow Brick Road Runs Through Karen Pogorzelski’s Life

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 “I always dressed as Dorothy at Halloween,” she says, “even though every year, my mother would ask me if I would like to be someone else.” She so immersed herself in the “Wizard of Oz” movie she could recite every line of the dialogue. And her first time to conduct for a musical was “The Wiz,” a famous funk version of the original. Her musicians consisted of a guitarist, a drummer, a bass player, a keyboard player, and a horn player.

Fast-forward to 2013, and Karen Pogorzelski is conductor for an orchestra of 20 in Sandpoint’s summer musical, “The Wizard of Oz,” produced by Sandpoint Onstage and directed by Deborah McShane. “ Any other musical I could have said ‘no’ to, but not The Wizard of Oz.”

Karen studied violin since the age of 4, and also oboe and electric bass. A move to Montana introduced her to bluegrass, and an 80 year old fiddler completely upended her thoughts about music from formal and classical to American dance and folk music. From performer to teacher, she was asked to give violin music lessons to a friend’s son. This expanded to teaching music classes at The Music Conservatory of Sandpoint and Twin Eagles Wilderness School. 

Pogorzelski’s life path then disguised itself as a detour on the famous Road to Santiago, a 500 mile pilgrimage from the Pyrenees to the ocean of Northern Spain. Because anchors and sails don’t go together, Karen bravely “quit her day job” and embarked on the 1,000 year old pilgrimage, with her next step unknown. “All I took with me was my backpack and my violin. The violin was my way to participate, the one thing that stayed the same for me as the landscape and the people changed.” Music has always been the constant in Pogorzelski’s life.

Sharing the song of her life in Spain preluded sharing more of it at home. The day before she was to board a plane for Sandpoint, an email from Rachel Gordon of the Music Conservatory invited her to fly home and land in new creative territory. She said yes.

“Rachel invited me to teach and to be assistant conductor for the LPOSD 5th and 6th grade bands,” recalls Karen. At the conservatory, Pogorzelski learned even more deeply about conducting from Rachel and Pend Oreille Chorale conductor Caren Reiner. So when Sarah Caruso, vocal director for Sandpoint Onstage’s “Oz,” asked her to conduct the Oz orchestra, Karen parted the waters in her schedule and made a way to say yes.

Karen proceeded to place more than 100 recruiting phone calls, and the musicians who ultimately gravitated to the project are all “gifted, hardworking and committed. Everyone who said yes has followed through and shown up, gotten the word out and helped get music stands,” says Karen. “They come straight from work and school to rehearse. That’s more than talent and means as much or even more than talent.” She describes the high schoolers as “enthusiastic and talented,” and the other musicians as patient and extremely knowledgeable, some having played in orchestras all their lives. 

The Sandpoint spirit of support for community theatre infuses the process. “Tom Walton,” she recalls with grateful amazement, “a teacher here for 30 years and leader of a jazz band called ‘Swing Street Big Band,’ dropped by to sit in on the trumpet because my trumpeters were detained by a professional commitment in Arizona!”

Actors attending “Oz” rehearsals waft through the doors on waves of music already high-spirited and beautiful. “We worked with Sam Richardson recently, who plays the Cowardly Lion,” says Pogorzelski, “and he was a little nervous because he hadn’t perfected ‘If I Were King of the Forest’ yet, but we played it anyway, and I got to see everyone’s face light up! It was that moment when the singing and the music unite, and the energy surges, and everyone is supported, and it’s just magic.” 

That magic can still be heard on the Panida main stage on July 12 and 13 at 8 pm. Tickets are available online at sandpointonstage.com, and at Eve’s Leaves and Monarch Mountain Coffee. Prices are $17 adults, $15 seniors/students and $12 for children 12 years old and under. Advance purchase is recommended due to sold out performances.

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Teresa Pesce

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music, Karen Pogorzelski, Wizard of Oz, community theater, conductor

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