The Kotzschmar Organ
At 2:23 a.m. on January 24, 1908, a fire started, ironically, in the wiring of a new-fangled fire alarm system that was housed in the office of the city electrician on the third floor of City Hall in Portland, Maine. Public alarm was quickly raised, but freezing temperatures hampered the operation of the primitive fire fighting equipment, and the building was completely destroyed.
City leaders lost no time recovering from the disaster. The New York architectural firm of Carrère & Hastings, newly famous for their design of the New York Public Library completed in 1908, was engaged to design the new building, which was built, decorated, and furnished in just a few years and was ready for dedication in the summer of 1912.
Less than four months after the City Hall fire, on April 15, 1908, Portland’s most highly revered musician, Hermann Kotzschmar, passed away. A German immigrant, he had been encouraged to move to Portland by Cyrus Curtis, an interior decorator, prominent citizen, and music lover, who had heard Kotzschmar perform in Boston. When Kotzschmar and his wife moved to Portland, they lived in the Curtis home until they were established and could find a home for themselves.
Hermann Kotzschmar became organist at First Parish Church in Portland, formed an orchestra and choral society, and was the beloved teacher of scores of young musicians. The friendship that developed between Curtis and Kotzschmar was so close that Cyrus Curtis named his son Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis (1850–1933). Cyrus H. K. Curtis made quite a success of himself, founding the wildly popular The Saturday Evening Post and The Ladies’ Home Journal, and later acquiring The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Evening Post, and The New York Evening Post. He amassed a vast fortune and was a prolific philanthropist.
After learning of Hermann Kotzsch-mar’s death, Cyrus H. K. Curtis approached his lifelong friend, Adam Leighton, former mayor of Portland and chair of the City Hall building commission, offering to purchase a huge pipe organ to be installed in the auditorium of the new City Hall as a gift to the people of the city of Portland. He commissioned the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut, to build the organ, and wrote to Mr. Leighton,
I have given them carte blanche to build [the] organ, unhampered by any organist or music committee, and without any prejudice or pre-conceived notions of my own, knowing that they are better qualified to build the right kind of instruments than I could be or any committee whose member might differ in their views as to what was best.
As this organ is to be a memorial to Hermann Kotzschmar, I have asked [Austin] to provide some sort of place in the organ front for a bust of Mr. Kotzschmar and I am writing Mrs. Kotzschmar for photographs of her late husband with the idea of putting them into the hands of the best sculptor I know.
The cost of the organ was not to exceed $30,000, and Curtis’s gift made necessary alterations in the plans for the building, at a cost totaling $23,244.75, which was quickly authorized by the City Council.
On July 1, 1912, Mayor Oakley Curtis and the Portland City Council approved the formation of a music commission of three persons who would serve three-year terms. The commission would be responsible for the maintenance of the organ and the selection and hiring of the municipal organist. The virtuoso Will C. MacFarlane was appointed the city’s first organist; he was on the bench on Thursday, August 22, 1912, for the dedication of City Hall and the Kotzschmar Organ. The program opened with Léon Boëllmann’s Suite Gothique, followed by a prayer and Owen Brainard of Carrère & Hastings presenting the mayor with the keys to the building.
Chairman Leighton gave a report to the assembly that included the announcement that the cost of the building was $930,934.34. His report concluded,
And now, Your Honor, Mayor Curtis, please accept from the fellow members of the building commission their hearty good-will, along with the formal relinquishment of stewardship of this beautiful structure, which is destined, we believe, to enhance Portland’s title to the compliment it so often receives of being the most beautiful city of the New World.
Cyrus H. K. Curtis then took the stage:
I present to the City of Portland through you, this memorial to Hermann Kotzschmar, who for more than fifty years was pre-eminent in this city as organist, composer, and teacher, a man who was loved by all classes for his kindly spirit, his high ideals, and his devotion to music.
He cared little or nothing for material things or for fame—he never sought them, but here is his monument—a monument to one who did something to make us better men and women and appreciate that indefinable something that is an expression of the soul.
Cyrus H. K. Curtis purchased three different Aeolian organs for his home in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and in 1926 he purchased the immense Austin organ (146 ranks!) for Irvine Auditorium in Philadelphia as a gift to the University of Pennsylvania. The depth of his devotion to the art of music is seen in the heritage left by his daughter, Marie Louise Curtis Bok, who worked at South Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School, teaching underprivileged children.1 She realized the need for a high-quality school of music that would be available to anyone, and in 1924, founded the tuition-free Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in honor of her father, so the influence of Hermann Kotzschmar is actively alive in Philadelphia as well as in Portland.
The Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ
The Kotzschmar organ had a wonderful career as a cultural icon in the center of the city’s artistic life. A succession of brilliant musicians served as municipal organist through the first half of the twentieth century. But by the 1970s, the organ had fallen onto hard times. The city’s budget was strained, and its leaders found it difficult to preserve the budget for the care and use of the organ ahead of essential services.
In 1980, Berj Zamkochian, organist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, brought a group of friends to see the Kotzschmar Organ. Among them was Maurice Prendergast, late of Kennebunk, Maine, who was impressed by the organ but dismayed by its condition. A few days later, he visited the offices of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and presented executive director Russ Burleigh with a check for $10,000 to be used for repairing the organ. As the organ was owned by the city, Burleigh felt that it would be inappropriate to accept the gift on behalf of the orchestra, and conferred with PSO president Peter Plumb. The idea of forming a non-profit group devoted to the care of the organ emerged, interested parties negotiated with the city to assume the responsibility for the care of the organ, and in 1981, the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ (FOKO) was founded, with Peter Plumb as founding president.
A board of directors was established, fund raising began, and FOKO presided over critical repairs to get the organ back on its feet. Concert programming was renewed, and the organ regained its active presence. When the City Hall auditorium was renovated in the 1990s, the organ was removed from the hall for safe keeping, and the stage was significantly enlarged. Through heroic efforts by FOKO and the herculean devotion of organ curator David Wallace, in 1997 it made its triumphant return to the newly renamed Merrill Auditorium.
Transition and growth
Ray Cornils was appointed Portland’s tenth municipal organist in 1990.2 Ray’s tenure of 27 years in that position is the longest in the history of the position. His consummate musicianship, his gracious and welcoming personality, his affinity for working with young people in FOKO’s vast educational efforts, and his skill at nurturing the complex relationships between FOKO and the City of Portland have been essential to the growth and success of FOKO. Ray was patient with the failing and recalcitrant organ, coaxing it through its dying breath on numerous occasions and helping scores of visiting organists navigate its treacheries. Ray’s ability to show the organ in its best light, no matter the circumstances, was central to its continued prominence.
Ray was equally essential to the lengthy task of the renovation of the organ, working with the organ committee through dozens of complex meetings, assisting in raising funds, and continuing as the ambassador for the Kotzschmar Organ. He helped play the organ out of the hall as the renovation began and played it back into Portland as a renewed instrument. In many ways, Ray Cornils has been “Mister Music” for the city of Portland and the state of Maine.
David Wallace first met the Kotzschmar Organ at the age of six, the beginning of his devotion to the instrument, and the formation of his career as an organbuilder. David’s zeal was essential to the organ’s survival through budget cuts, near abandonment, and the immense chore of bringing it back to life after the renovation of the hall. Although news reports heralded the return of the “restored” Kotzschmar Organ, David knew as well as anyone that its days were still numbered.
In 2007, the reality of the organ’s condition was made clear to the board of directors, and plans for a serious and comprehensive renovation of the organ were formed. You can read in depth of the history of that process, from startled realization, to the thrill of the organ’s second triumphant return to the hall in 2014 on FOKO’s website at www.foko.org/2012-renovation/.
During the 2016 annual meeting of FOKO’s board of directors, Ray Cornils announced his retirement, to be effective after the traditional holiday concerts, “Christmas with Cornils,” in December 2017. A search committee3 was formed in October 2016, whose work started with the realization that the newly renovated organ could serve as a vehicle for a new life for the organization. Purposefully intending to remain open to structuring a new position around the talents of the next municipal organist, the committee solicited applications, reviewed recorded submissions, and selected six finalists who would travel to Portland for live interviews and auditions in May and June of 2017. After the auditions, the committee quickly reached a unanimous decision.
The Eleventh Municipal Organist
On Monday, September 18, 2017, the board of directors of the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ voted unanimously to accept the recommendation of the search committee to appoint James Kennerley as Portland’s eleventh municipal organist. That evening, at its regular bi-monthly meeting, the Portland City Council welcomed an ensemble named Burundi Drummers Batimbo United in a colorful thunderous performance in City Council chambers. They took special action to change residency requirements for Class C board members of the non-profit Portland Fish Exchange, made several special proclamations brought forward by Mayor Ethan Strimling, and acted on the order to appoint James Kennerley as municipal organist, effective January 1, 2018.
James Kennerley began his formal musical education as a chorister at Chelmsford Cathedral, where proximity to the organ inspired his interest in the instrument. He holds degrees from Cambridge University and The Juilliard School, and the prestigious diploma as a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists. After holding positions at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut, and St. Mary the Virgin (Times Square) in New York City, he presently serves as organist and choirmaster at the Church of St. Ignatius of Antioch in New York City, where he directs a professional choir of 18 voices.
James won first place in the 2008 Albert Schweitzer National Organ Playing Competition and was winner of the 2013 composition competition of the Association of Anglican Musicians. He is active in New York and abroad as an organist, harpsichordist, singer, and conductor.
Recently, James and I sat together in my apartment in New York City to chat about the start of his work in Portland. He spoke eloquently about the role of the performer, bringing thought-provoking expression, musical and artistic statements both old and new, and outright entertainment to sacred congregations and secular audiences alike. But while serving a church is to be organist to the people of the church, serving as a municipal organist is to be an ambassador, a host, and a musician all at once.
He expressed his excitement about getting to know the people of Portland and to drawing audiences to the city from afar. James and his wife, Emily, had gotten to know Portland earlier through visits with friends who live there—friends who consider Portland to be a hip and up and coming place to live, “the Brooklyn of the East Coast!” It is a city of about 65,000 residents (the size of a usual neighborhood in New York City), in a metropolitan area of about 250,000, and is home to a fleet of flourishing arts organizations including the Portland Art Museum and the Portland Symphony Orchestra.
The recent renovation of the Kotzschmar Organ is testament to the population’s commitment to the arts. It’s hard to believe that $2,400,000 could be raised for such a purpose in a city that size. By contrast, with all its cultural wealth, there is no public secular pipe organ in New York City.
James spoke of the newly renovated organ in the beautiful auditorium as a fresh canvas on which to paint a new musical picture. His vision as host is to welcome the city’s residents and visitors into City Hall, into a world of the arts including offerings from all disciplines.
By comparison, he spoke of the chef and owner of a fine restaurant, welcoming patrons into comfortable surroundings where an exciting world of things both familiar and unexpected is waiting. Perhaps one weekend, we’ll depart from the usual menu and venture into an interesting world of exotic cuisine. Perhaps one week, we’ll invite a guest chef to approach the home stove and present something new to the neighborhood.
And as we talked, he took the restaurant metaphor further. He and Emily had just returned from a vacation in Europe, where they traveled off the beaten touristy path to remote villages in Spain where no one spoke English and where restaurants didn’t offer English menus. With little or no command of Spanish, and by cobbling together some understanding of Latin, and wisps of other languages, they ordered meals and were sometimes surprised by what turned up.
James compared that experience to the average citizen who shows up for a concert, is handed a menu in a foreign language, and takes his chances from limited knowledge as to what’s coming. The maître d’hôtel escorts the diner to his seat, unfolds the napkin, offers a glass of water, and explains the intricacies, the ingredients, and philosophies of each dish. The performer as host, as maître d’hôtel, can introduce a composer, place the music in the appropriate geographic and political context, and draw the average listener into an enlightened experience that is otherwise unattainable. The more you know about something, the easier it is to order and enjoy something unfamiliar.
The hot seat
The search committee established a tough audition process. Merrill Auditorium is a very busy place where time is at a premium, and the committee balanced the desire to hear the largest possible number of live auditions with the need to provide candidates with time to prepare at the organ. Candidates were given two hours of practice time to prepare one hour of audition performance. Just look at all those knobs. It was a daunting task.
James Kennerley had never played the Kotzschmar Organ before his audition, and in those two precious hours, he mined the tonal ore of the instrument to the deepest depths, and produced a program that included sophisticated serious music, glimpses into whimsy and fantasy, and a virtuosic romp of his own creation on the Brazilian smash hit, Tico-Tico no Fubá.
Portland audiences, you have no idea how much you’re going to love welcoming James Kennerley as your eleventh municipal organist. Come early, come often. Bring your friends, lots of friends. We’ll be happy to recommend restaurants. It’s a big hall. There are plenty of seats. It’s going to be a blast.
1. Marie Louise Curtis’s first husband was Edward Bok, editor of her father’s magazine, The Ladies’ Home Journal. Their son, Curtis Bok, was Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Their grandson, Derek Bok, was president of Harvard University. Marie Louise Curtis’s second husband was the violinist Effrem Zimbalist, director of the Curtis School of Music. His son, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., was an actor, renowned for his starring roles in 77 Sunset Strip, and The F.B.I. Efrem Zimbalist, Jr’s., daughter, Stephanie, played Laura Holt in the NBC detective series, Remington Steele.
2. Will C. MacFarlane served two tenures, from 1912–1918, and 1932–1934.
3. Members of the search committee included John Bishop, Tom Cattell (president of the FOKO board of directors), Andy Downs (director of public facilities for the city), Elsa Geskus, Tracy Hawkins, Brooke Hubner (executive director of FOKO), Peter Plumb, Larry Rubinstein (chair), Harold Stover, and Mark Terison.