UW-Eau Claire alumni success stories

Vocal quintet performs swing shows across U.S.

The following article (reprinted with permission from the June 2, 2005, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram) features UW-Eau Claire alumni Kurt Niska '89 (music), Lorie Carpenter-Niska '89 (psychology), Terrence Niska '87 (music education) and Michael Swedberg '87, '89 (music), all members of the vocal quintet Five By Design.

Five By Design
Five By Design includes (left to right) Kurt Niska, Lorie Carpenter-Niska, Michael Swedberg, Catherine Farr-Scott (recently replaced by Sheridan Zuther) and Terrence Niska. All but Farr-Scott and Zuther are UW-Eau Claire alumni.

June 2, 2005

By Ann Barsness
Leader-Telegram staff

A vocal quintet whose core members booked their first gigs as a UW-Eau Claire jazz group will open the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sommerfest series June 5.

Five By Design — UW-Eau Claire alumni Kurt Niska, Lorie Carpenter-Niska, Terrence Niska and Michael Swedberg with new member Sheridan Zuther — now performs about 65 shows a season, many of them with symphony orchestras throughout the United States.

A season highlight this year included a 1940s-themed February performance with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, which led a Washington Post reviewer to call Five By Design’s appearance “one of the best National Symphony Orchestra pops performances of the season.”

On Sunday, Five By Design will present “Club Swing,” a program set in a fictional nightclub whose occupants sing songs of the 1937-through-1955 swing era — including “Begin the Beguine,” “In the Mood” and “Sing, Sing, Sing.”

The four alumni will appear with Zuther and their former jazz professor, Robert Baca, who leads the 14-member Robert Baca Jazz Orchestra.

“As much as we were enjoying doing this when we were in school, I don’t think any of us did this thinking we would make a career of it,” Kurt Niska, 38, said by telephone from his Shakopee, Minn., home.

Kurt and brother Terrence already were friends with Michael from their high school days in Washburn when they met Lorie at UW-Eau Claire. At the time, the group, Hot Jazz, also included Alton Accola, whose duties now include promotions.

For about four years after college, the group, which by then was known as Five By Design, only came together for occasional gigs.

Their break came when Accola booked the group’s first symphony pops performance. Five By Design sang “Radio Days,” a musical retrospective of World War II-era songs, with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in fall 1994.

“That was one of those (performances where) if it goes really well, it could spark some longevity,” Kurt said. “If it goes really badly then maybe it wasn’t meant to be.”

But Milwaukee pops patrons voted the concert their favorite of the season, and by 1997, Five By Design was performing full time.

To date, Accola said, the group has performed with about 160 symphonies. Its “Club Swing” and “Radio Days” repertoire includes about 60 songs.

Kurt said the group is developing a third concept show, one that would feature five-part harmonies from 1950 through the mid-1960s, an era when music moved from clubs and radio to television.

“It’s an American art form,” Kurt said of the swing style. “It’s got a contagious energy that I think everybody enjoys.”

Kurt said performing with different symphonies and bands helps to keep the music sounding fresh.

“It’s hard to imagine not doing it at this time. I think that means we’re certainly not tired of the material,” Kurt said. “I’ll sing for free because I enjoy it. It’s the truck driving and paperwork that I have (to be paid for).”

Five By Design’s members have discussed what the group might do if someone decides he or she doesn’t want to sing anymore. They have discussed auditioning another Five By Design group.

But they’ll spend most of this summer planning for the fall season — not only working on the music, but also confirming hotel stays and detailing the logistics. Kurt’s work on the business side of Five By Design helps to explain his advice to UW-Eau Claire music students considering a performance career.

“Don’t work so much at your craft or your art that you lose sight of the other things in the world around you,” Kurt said. “If I could do it again, I’d take some business classes, or basic accounting.”

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