In the Wind. . . .

February 28, 2018

Organs for the people

The early twentieth century was the golden age of the municipal organist. Dozens of cities across the United States installed monumental organs in public auditoriums, and brilliant organists were hired to play them, paid with public funds. Those were days when the economics of symphony orchestras limited attendance to the top-hat and sable-stole crowd, so in the days before radio, the general public might not ever have a chance to hear a Beethoven symphony or Rossini overture.

That was also the age of rapid development of electric organ actions and a dizzying display of registration aids. Just as Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s organs changed the work and scope of musicians and composers 60 years earlier, Ernest Skinner and others were baring their engineering teeth and festooning their consoles with swell shade selectors, programmable crescendos, and settable combination actions with general pistons. Great ideas for new console controls came along, such as super couplers that didn’t affect high-pitch stops and cutouts that would shut off all mutations.

In the 1920s, the populace of Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Topeka, Kansas, would gather loyally each week at their big municipal auditorium to be treated to a varied performance by a great organist. The immense popularity of such concerts was described by Cleveland city architect Harold MacDowell, who wrote after the dedication concert of the 149-rank Skinner organ in that city’s 13,000-seat Public Auditorium in 1922:

 

Despite the oppressive heat, the crowd which had been collecting since noon soon exceeded the capacity of the mammoth hall and long before the time set for the inaugural recital all seats were filled and more than 5000 men, women, and children were crowding the corridors of the colossal structure. The police which were out in large numbers were at first able to hold the crowd into a semblance of order, but soon gave up in despair as the eager mob swept all before it.

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a riot before an organ recital.

City Hall in Portland, Maine, was destroyed by a calamitous fire in January 1908 that started, ironically, in the new-fangled electric fire alarm system in the office of the city electrician. The city fathers (there were no women in government then) wasted no time, hiring Carèrre & Hastings, who had famously designed the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, and the new City Hall was ready for dedication in August 1912.

Concurrently, the publishing magnate, Portland native Cyrus H. K. Curtis, made a gift of a hundred-stop Austin organ for the auditorium of the city hall. Curtis’s father had invited Hermann Kotzschmar to move to Portland where he established himself as the most prominent musician, influencing generations of Portlandians through his tireless work and brilliant performances. The friendship between Curtis’s father and Kotzschmar was so strong that he named his son Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis, and Cyrus H. K. Curtis in turn dedicated the organ to Kotzschmar. During the dedication ceremony of city hall and the organ on August 22, 1912, Curtis addressed the assembled crowd:

 

Mr. Mayor,

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 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 to appreciate that indefinable something that is an expression of the soul.

 

The great William C. Macfarlane was engaged as Portland’s first municipal organist, and a city music commission was formed. Macfarlane served from 1912 until 1918 and returned for a second stint between 1932 and 1934. Edwin H. Lemare, another musical luminary, served from 1921 to 1923.

In the 1970s, municipal funds were dwindling, and the maintenance of the organ suffered until 1980 when the city council voted to stop funding the organ. A group of interested citizens came forth in 1981, founding the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ (FOKO), which would develop a board of directors and assume responsibility for the care and presentation of the organ. The organ would remain the property of the city, and a carefully crafted relationship was formed and nurtured that has endured to this day.

In the 1990s, the auditorium was to be renovated and modernized, and the Kotzschmar Organ was removed to storage. This was a critical moment in the life of the organ, as once it was in storage, there were voices in town that would have been pleased if the organ had not been returned to the new hall. Through FOKO’s tireless devotion, funds were raised to install the organ in a specially built space above the stage in the newly renamed Merrill Auditorium.

Most importantly, it was the effort of David Wallace, the organ’s curator, who was dedicated to seeing the organ brought back to life, even though proper funding was not available. It was that effort that made possible FOKO’s crowning achievement, the Centennial Renovation. After 30 years of tireless maintenance of the reinstalled organ, an ambitious fundraising project was undertaken, and on August 22, 2012, the one-hundredth anniversary of the dedication of the organ and the hall, the Kotzschmar Organ was removed for a second time, this time for transportation to the workshop of Foley-Baker, Inc., in Tolland, Connecticut, for a thorough, professional renovation. A few new voices were added, the Austin Universal Air Chest was replaced with a new one of authentic design, returning the instrument to its original dimensions. The electrical system was replaced, damaged pipes were repaired, and the organ now speaks with clarity and brilliance as if it were brand new.

 

A twenty-first century municipal
organist

Ray Cornils was educated at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music and held positions as organist at various churches in the Boston area until he and his partner, now husband, David Bellville, felt an urge to move to Maine. Ray secured the position of director of music at First Parish in Brunswick, Maine, in 1987, and in 1990 was appointed the eleventh municipal organist of Portland.

Following the final concert of 2017, Cornils retired from the position in Portland. He had retired from First Parish in June, and with all those responsibilities behind him, he and David retreated to their home on the beach in Salinas, Ecuador. Salinas is at the tip of a peninsula that juts into the Pacific Ocean from the west coast of Ecuador, right near the equator. Ray and David also have a home in Quichinche, high in the Andes, an hour or so north of the capitol city, Quito (altitude 9,500 feet), ten hours from Salinas, and they have retained their home in Maine. I caught up with Cornils by Skype the other day and spent a pleasant hour and more chatting about FOKO. He described his current state as “taking a deep breath” and learning to live without the relentless responsibilities of those two demanding positions.

When Cornils was appointed municipal organist, FOKO was nearly ten years old and growing steadily in organization and effectiveness. The annual budget was around $20,000, and the condition of the Kotzschmar Organ was in steady decline. Ray acknowledged the organ’s terrible condition as “. . . a given. You registered music with handfuls of stops because there were so many dead notes.” Some stops worked sporadically because of worn and unreliable contacts. The roar of the basement blower joined the chorus of thousands of wind leaks in the organ on the stage to create a high level of ambient noise, so that when the organ was used with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, it was turned off during rests because the musicians of the orchestra objected to the extraneous noise.

On several occasions, the organ failed completely. When Pierre Pincemaille was preparing for a recital, the huge organ blower “threw its fans.” After years of torque from starting the heavy machine, the rivets were worn, and when they failed, torn sheet metal blew through the windlines into the big windchest. It must have made quite a noise. And there was David Wallace to dismantle the blower and take the fans to a local sheet metal company that fabricated new vanes overnight, and though Pincemaille only had a few hours to prepare, the concert went on as scheduled.1

Ray spoke of the challenges of communicating with an organ that was operating at such a low level. FOKO was working diligently to keep the organ going, but the instrument was unraveling. After the organ was reinstalled following the renovation of the auditorium, the press heralded the triumphant return of the “restored” Kotzschmar Organ. While the organ had not, in fact, been restored, its condition was substantially improved, allowing a fresh start for programming. Cornils resumed the work of inviting prominent organists to present recitals, serving as the tireless and gracious host as he introduced them to the organ.

When I asked Ray what impact the position had on him over the years, he answered, “the ability to listen.” To listen to reactions of the audience to the artists and music being presented. To listen to the input of lay people serving on the FOKO board as they commented on what sells and what doesn’t. To listen to himself as he spoke at meetings, as he conducted the relationship with the city, and as he addressed audiences about the music he was playing. To listen to his playing, trying always to be a growing musician and effective communicator. To listen to the organ, responding to what it seemed to be able to do best. And to listen to the guest artists, noticing what they were able to get out of the organ and how they did it.

It is unusual for an organist to get to hear their home organ played regularly by different people. It is more usual that the “home” organist of a church never hears anyone else playing the organ, which is often not to the advantage of the listener. Ray spoke at length about the value of that part of his work. It’s a challenge for any organist to arrive in town with a few days to prepare a concert on a strange organ, especially one that’s not in terrific condition.

Professionals in the pipe organ community are a tiny subset of society, and Cornils worked to find ways to connect the organ world with the real world. He encouraged guest artists to address their audiences, and instituted preconcert conversations in which he would interview a musician, allowing for more personal contact between artists and audiences. Late in his tenure, FOKO began publishing brief videos on social media featuring guest artists playing selections from their program and speaking about what excited them about the music and the experience of playing in Merrill Auditorium.

Cornils was always mindful of the heritage of the Kotzschmar Organ. The instrument was presented to the city by a music lover who had been moved by the work of a prominent local musician, a moving response to an artist’s life work. Ray understood the responsibility of honoring and nurturing that heritage by keeping the Kotzschmar Organ in front of the public and always showing its best side, no matter what particular foibles it presented on a given day.

During his tenure, Cornils was active in and devoted to FOKO’s educational outreach. He spoke of the rich rewards of working with children in public schools and working with the teachers to plan curriculums that melded into the other topics discussed in the classroom. He made an effort to pick up on the sorts of vocabulary the class was used to and to tie the marvels of the organ into scientific, historical, and artistic conversations. He recognized that many people experience the sound of the organ as scary because of its use in popular horror films and other media. Ray enjoyed sharing the organ’s joyful, triumphant, meditative, and tuneful sides with the students, and some of his highest moments were when parents greeted him after concerts saying that their kids had experienced FOKO in their classrooms and encouraged the family to come to Merrill Auditorium to hear the organ in person.

§

The Centennial Renovation was a crowning achievement of the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, and Cornils’s well-known humility would never allow him to claim credit for it. It was a magnificent effort put forth by an active group of volunteers serving on the board, supported by the generous donations from the public. But Ray’s decades of service, his unflappability, his gracious and thoughtful presence as FOKO negotiated the relationship with the city, and his continuous presence on stage and in public as the voice of FOKO, the ambassador for the organ, and an artistic leader in the city were central to the success of the project. His voice and artistry helped make the Kotzschmar Organ a worthy recipient of the hundreds of private donations involved in funding that ambitious project.

It was fitting that Cornils’s tenure extended after the completion of the renovation. After the thrilling festival of rededication, Ray was on the bench of the Kotzschmar Organ for three years until his retirement. Now, guest artists gush their enthusiasm about the organ’s transformation, especially those who had played it before the renovation. And Ray had time to learn the organ’s new strengths and to experience afresh those voices that had been unusable. The original personality of the organ reemerged under Ray’s fingers, and the public was delighted.

On December 22, 2017, Ray made his last appearance in Merrill Auditorium as municipal organist in the city of Portland. Over the years, “Christmas with Cornils” programs had developed into a seasonal highpoint for the community, and predictably, the 1,600-seat hall was filled. Ray was joined by an 11-piece brass choir, percussion, chorus, and handbells for a rollicking romp through beloved holiday repertory. At intermission, Ethan Strimling, mayor of Portland, presented Ray with a key to the city. Ray responded to the audience’s ovation by saying, “This is not goodbye, it’s thank you.”

During the concert, Cornils was aware that his successor, James Kennerley, was present in the hall. At the end of the evening, without prompt and without plan, Ray invited James to join him on stage, signaling to the audience his support of the future, and generously giving James and the audience a chance to see each other. No one who has worked with Ray as student, colleague, peer, or collaborator would be surprised to learn that Ray’s last public gesture as municipal organist of the city of Portland would be one of humility and generosity.

Some people might assume that the role of the municipal organist would be to present a haughty, theatrical demeanor. That was not Ray’s way, and the city of Portland is a better because of his 27 years on that bench.

Notes

1. Ray’s telling of that story was especially poignant as Pierre Pincemaille had passed away on January 12, the day before my converastion with Ray Cornils.

 

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