Bench Warmer

Just in time for the holidays, Portland’s municipal organist is reunited with his (50-ton) instrument.

The 102-year-old Kotzschmar Organ at Merrill Auditorium in Portland is making music again following a two-year, $2.5 million renovation, and nobody’s happier about it than Ray Cornils, Portland’s municipal organist since 1990. Cornils is one of two municipal organists in the country (the other’s in San Diego), meaning he’s employed by the city to play and design programming around the historic, two-story wind instrument/landmark. Now that the organ’s 7,000 pipes have been shipped to Connecticut, refurbished, reinstalled, and retuned — and the organ’s 825-square-foot wind chest made airtight — Cornils and the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ (FOKO) are ready for their 25th Christmas with Cornils concert on December 23. We talked to Cornils about life on the bench.

So what have you been up to for two years without the Kotzschmar Organ?

Among other things, FOKO has been more broadly implementing our education series in upper elementary and middle schools, teaching physics, sound wave energy, social studies, and music through the pipe organ.

Wait, physics and social studies?

We started off just supplementing music education, but I realized I was also talking about how sound was produced — the physics and the sound wave energy. We realized we could use the organ as a hands-on exploration of physics. You can handle the pipes, and anybody can make a sound on pipes — it’s not like a clarinet. So you explore it and ask, “How does the pipe’s construction affect the sound?” Then you’re talking about frequency and amplitude. Or maybe you’re talking about language, because an organ has a pedal board — the root is “ped,” like “pedometer” and “pedicure” and “pedestrian.” And the keyboards are called “manuals,” like “manual labor” or “manicure.” So you can think pretty expansively when you have this instrument in front of you: what does it have to offer? It’s invigorating to bring that thought process to the classroom.

Was there a time when municipal organists were more abundant?

In the early 20th century, it was rather common, and in England in the 19th century there were town halls with town organists. This was before city symphonies, and organists could play a whole range of literature transcribed for organ. It was kind of a one-man band. Municipal organists always played on Sunday afternoons, and this was a time when there were blue laws, so there wasn’t much else to do on Sundays. The organ is a fascinating mechanical instrument that needs airtight seals, which are made by leather components that wear out. When you need them replaced, you’re talking about a capital expense, and in a lot of cities, maintenance issues were pushed to the side. So municipal organists kind of fell by the wayside, and by the ’40s and ’50s, a lot of music was available through radio and other technologies.

So Portland is an anomaly for keeping up its organ over time?

It is. The instruments that remain are there because of the resilience of their communities.

How do you describe your relationship with the Kotzschmar Organ?

It’s one of respect, a partnership. I try to find out, what does it really do well? What sounds and textures does it want to emit? How do I captivate a listening ear?

Do you have to relearn it now, to some degree?

Oh, definitely. It’s doing things that it couldn’t have done before, so the possibilities are much broader. And more exciting, actually. The change is remarkable. The sound and the clarity — oh, just the beauty and elegance of it. There are so many quieter sounds that are absolutely scrumptious. It’s not just the power. It’s the whole range of expression that this instrument has. It’s now playing like it should.

Congrats on 25 years of Christmas programs. But be honest, with all the stuff this organ can do, does playing Christmas carols get kind of humdrum after a while?

Not at all. It’s a wide-ranging, very diverse program of holiday music. There’s a power to these carols. I look for interesting arrangements that bring out characters, and really tell a story. It’s really kind of a challenge, to bring out the feel of the season using a wide variety of styles. This is music that has guided composers and people for centuries. There’s a folk-like quality to it, but it’s no less authentic in its intent and appeal.

The 25th Christmas with Cornils
Tuesday, December 23, 2014, 7:30 pm
Merrill Auditorium, Portland
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Brian Kevin

Brian Kevin is Down East's editor in chief.