The console of the Kotzschmar Organ looks lonely at the center of the stage in Portland City Hall’s Merrill Auditorium. The room swallows it. With an imposing facade of pipes towering before it and three tiers of seats looming behind, the console seems tiny and vulnerable–like a raft poised on the lip of a whale.
But as Ray Cornils settles onto the bench, the illusion disappears. At his touch, 6,857 pipes come to life, making the air thick with music. With both hands and feet he commands woodwinds, brass, and percussion. An entire symphony flows out of his keyboard, making a sound far grander than you’d think possible.
The Kotzschmar Organ is a fitting symbol of Portland, Maine–a community that, although only 64,000 residents strong, refuses to be a musical suburb of Boston. Its tradition of symphonic self-sufficiency is largely credited to Hermann Kotzschmar, a 19th-century Prussian immigrant who for 50 years brought the best of European music to the shores of Casco Bay. In 1912, four years after his death, Portland dedicated its municipal organ in his honor.
The Kotzschmar was one of many publicly owned organs being built at the time, but now it’s one of only a handful surviving in the country. Decades of shrinking budgets and shifting priorities have seen cities far larger than Portland let their organs go silent, yet the Kotzschmar, restored and enlarged over the years, persists.
Somehow the money and the support and the crowds continue to materialize. Cornils is Portland’s 10th municipal organist, and he has no intention of being the last. Along with a community of supporters, he continues the tradition of the yearly concert series, bringing the majesty of the Kotzschmar to the community that owns it and ensuring that it will be shaking the rafters of City Hall for years to come.
On January 31 at 2 p.m. Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ will present a special family concert, “Kids, Kartoons and Kotzschmar.” The first 200 people who call to reserve space will be able to tour the interior of the organ’s wind chest after the program. For a calendar of other upcoming Kotzschmar concerts, visit: foko.org
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