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When A Community Values Music: Portland’s Organ


Merrill Auditorium stage set for silent film and organ (Richard Bunbury photo)

Portland, Maine’s Merrill Auditorium organ is not only surviving, but also thriving. Just as symphony orchestras and bigger-budget arts organizations have been struggling in this economy, it is interesting to look at what makes a successful arts enterprise, especially one that is somewhat outside of the mainstream. At its center there must be something that is worth valuing, and of course, leadership and community efforts.

On August 17th, the Friends of the Kotzschmar kicked off a five-day celebration of the centennial of the storied organ in Portland’s City Hall. (BMINT’s background article on the festival is (here). The festivities included performances, lectures, master classes, and even a windchest tour. Organists from around the state shared the stage with a number of big-name performers. It all ended Wednesday evening with a festival concert that included Peter Richard Conte, organist of the Wannamaker Grand Court organ in Philadelphia, a kindred sister to the Kotzschmar. Ray Cornils, Portland’s Civic Organist who spearheaded the festival, performed along with the Kotzschmar Festival Brass. This review covers the events of Friday evening and Saturday.

Here’s the back story on the Kotzschmar organ (more information here). It was a gift to the city by publishing magnate Cyrus H. K. Curtis in honor of his music teacher and revered town musician, Hermann Kotzschmar. This was in the day when residence organs were sine qua non in the homes of the Newport and Fifth Avenue crowd, and large, powerful instruments were banners of affluence and pride in public auditoriums. Boston’s Music Hall and Worcester’s Mechanics Hall had their large instruments since about the 1860s (although Boston’s was removed to make room for what would become the Boston Symphony Orchestra.) Electrification of consoles (the keyboards and pedal board of the organ) around the turn of the century permitted the pipes and windchests of the organs to be at relatively great distances from the console, adding to the sonic possibilities and making them fascinating and futuristic music machines.

Portland’s was built by the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, CT, whose instruments were consciously built to imitate, and in some cases replace, the symphony orchestra. Technological advancements coincided with a decades-long obsession with Wagner and a highly skilled organist could create wondrous effects with the greatly expanded total and dynamic palette of these behemoths. Bigger was better, and Cyrus Curtis coughed up the money for what was the second largest organ in the world when it was installed in Portland City Hall Auditorium in 1912. He even enlarged it 15 years later with divisions (sections of pipes of the organ) in the ceiling and back of the hall. An organ of this size has more in common with a jumbo jet when one is talking about size and torque of the blower, the “fan” that provides the enormous amount of air needed to wind the instrument.

The emergence of “talkies” in the 1930s, along with changes in society and cultural values, spelled the death of organs in theaters and auditoriums. Organists and organ builders held forth in places of worship, conservatories, and academia as they had for hundreds of years. Portland’s auditorium organ had enough cultural capital to keep it alive and active for the community through the 20th -century and into the 21st, but there were challenges. It survived a poorly executed construction work in the mid-1960s. Twenty years later, the city announced it could no longer fund the costs of maintaining the aging instrument.

Were it not for courageous and hard-working individuals who stepped up and formed a grassroots organization, Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ (FOKO), there would probably be no trace of the instrument remaining. FOKO fought to keep the organ during a massive renovation project of the auditorium in the 1990s, which resulted in an aesthetic compromise between retaining the organ and its façade and incorporating modern-looking reflective panels for orchestral concerts and other kinds of performances.

A commanding state-of the-art five-manual console, elegantly controlling 102 ranks and 6,862 pipes in eight divisions, replaced its clunky predecessor in 2000. What is left to do is a multi-million-dollar complete renovation of the organ itself (that is the pipes, windchests, and actions). It requires a complete removal of the instrument to the workshop of Foley Baker, Toland, CT, where highly skilled craftsmen will spend perhaps tens of thousands of man hours restoring it. The Kotzschmar Centennial serves to focus attention to the instrument and to continue the considerable effort to fund the organ’s restoration and endowment for its continued maintenance.

Frankly, the whole thing is an inspiring affair, giving hope to something that would have disappeared from the city’s cultural landscape. Most organ recitals are populated by organists and their friends, just as concerts of new music tend to be populated by composers and wannabes. It is evident that the Kotzschmar tends to attract a lot of people who are musical aficionados and not necessarily trained musicians. Yes, they are mainly white, suburban, college-educated, and approaching or in retirement, but that is the demographic of the classical-music concert.

Now on to the festival and its performances. Portland’s handsomely restored Merrill Auditorium was transformed into a silent movie palace on Friday when Tom Trenney accompanied Harold Lloyd’s brilliantly clever silent film, Speedy. Kotzschmar audiences have enjoyed such offerings, as FOKO has been presenting silent films with live organ accompaniment, in addition to concerts and recitals, for three decades. Choosing Trenney might be seen as somewhat controversial, as he is known principally as an artist who concertizes under management as a “classical” organist. He proved to be an impeccable choice, however, blending his own take on organ works, transcriptions, and the expected repertoire of period popular songs to advance the narrative on the screen with humor, virtuosity, and panache. He plays without score, watching a small monitor showing the film and relying on his memory of having worked out what excerpts, improvised material, and connective tissue that best support the action. I daresay his “improvisations” are interesting enough to stand on their own, but more importantly, the audience of about 800 people was audibly caught up in the in the sheer joy of the musical and cinematic experience.

Saturday’s schedule was dominated by “Performathon.” The idea was a noble one — invite organists from the state (18 of them), and they will bring their own audiences (church members probably) and create new audiences for the instrument. Performances began at 9:30 am and continued until 3:30. Festival organizers scored a big one by securing Michael Barone as the MC. He is universally admired in the organ world as host and senior executive producer of the nationally syndicated radio show “Pipedreams” (locally broadcast through WCRB’s 99.5 on Sundays at 11 pm). His celebrity, satiny FM radio voice, and expert way of introducing works and performers and putting the spotlight on the great Austin organ not only lent stature and credibility to the festival but made Saturday’s “Performathon” tolerable.

The performers I heard ranged from mediocre to quite good, representing a wide range of literature from Bach to Widor.  J. S. Bach’s Dorian Toccata in D minor and “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations of Elgar were ably played by Bruce Fithian. Peter Plumb, an attorney by profession and FOKO mover and shaker, appropriately played two former Kotzschmar Civic Organists’ works, Edwin H. Lemare’s Andantino and Alfred Brinkler’s Variations on a Ground Bass. Oberlin sophomore Katelyn Emerson’s strong technique and fiery musicality was especially evident in the “Allegro” of Widor’s Symphonie VI. She is indeed a “Rising Star” in the organ world. Keep an eye out for her. It was an enjoyable and enlightening morning, but one would have liked a greater representation of the kinds of pieces that are the bread and butter of a symphonic organ — transcriptions of orchestral works — and a greater overall sense of the organ’s soft and colorful registers.

A trek to the other side of town for Fred Hohmann’s workshop on Lemare at the Cathedral of St. Luke proved fruitless, as it had been cancelled. I proceeded to join the organ geeks at the festival hotel for a presentation entitled, “Tales from the Curators,” (organspeak for organ maintenance people) hosted by current and former curators and Civic Organist Ray Cornils. It was a fascinating walk through the history and engineering aspects of the building and organ. It’s no wonder that so many organ geeks are also train buffs; it’s so much about the enormity of scale. An exhibition featured a “see-through” portable demonstration pipe organ built for FOKO’s education, and outreach programs showed that they are really getting out into the community and making the organ known and understood.

A panel discussion led by Mike Foley, entitled “It’s broader than you think: Pops and the American symphonic organ,” proved to be disappointing. Downright annoying. Big-name concert and theater organist Walt Strony dominated the conversation with his oversized ego and utter lack of objective and critical perspective. Kudos to the other participants for their valiant attempts to keep the discussion substantive.

Saturday night’s program set out to prove whether or not the Kotzschmar can double as a theater organ. Scott Foppiano and Strony split the program; they announced each piece from the stage in Pops fashion. Foppianno cleverly hijacked the organ’s tonal resources by incorporating theater-organ registrations and techniques. As he said at one point, “this organ can do it all.” His nostalgic program featured, “Lover, Come Back to Me” from the 1929 show Blue Moon, the Overture from Oscar Strauss’s operetta Chocolate Soldier, and Edgar Stillman Kelley’s chariot-race number from the incidental music to the play Ben Hur (1899). Gilbert & Sullivan’s Overture to Pirates of Penzance showed off the exquisite solo stops. Max Steiner’s “King Kong March” from the iconic film left the audience cheering. Foppiano’s sturdy technique, musicality, and likeable big-bear personality connected with the audience. At intermission he told me that this is “one of the best audiences in the country.” When I asked him what has to happen to play this music on this instrument, he said, “you have to be imaginative to make this sound like a theater organ.”

Expectations for the second half of the program were set high. The performer’s website asserts, “Walter Strony is one of America’s premier concert organists. He established himself as one of few … equally at home playing both theater and classical organ… [he] has performed hundreds of concerts from coast to coast in the United States as well as in Japan, Australia, England, and Canada… [and] at many conventions of the American Theatre Organ Society and the American Guild of Organists.” Strony lived up to his reputation with a scintillating performance, starting with the Brazilian choro piece, Tico Tico, that Ethyl Smith made famous on the Hammond organ. Lightning-fast registrational and manual changes made it a campy tour de force. Lerner and Lowe’s “Almost Like Being in Love” seemed better than any arrangement could possibly be. Strony paid tribute to theater organist Kay McAbee by playing his arrangement of tunes from the 1953 Wild West film Calamity Jane, the most famous of which was Doris Day’s rendition of “Secret Love.” Strony captured that mid-50s Kansas City theater-organ style to a “T.”

Interior of the Kotzschmar (RIchard Bunbury photo)

I was sorry not to be able to stay for the rest of his program, but a long drive back to Boston and feeling sleepy at a late hour was not a good combination. I was also sorry not to be able to stay for the rest of the festival, which promised so many interesting events and performances. In addition to the professionals already named, performers Thomas Heywood, Frederick Hohman, Fred Swann, and John Weaver are almost legendary. I was able, nevertheless, to buttonhole a few people connected with the festival and get some interesting perspectives.

Fred Hohman has a notable career as performer, arranger and producer. His specialty is the life and the music of Edwin H. Lemare, Portland Civic Organist from 1921-23 and the most highly sought-after organist of his day. “The Kotchmar organ deserves to be preserved because it represents the tradition of the symphonic organ about as well as any organ in America,” he said. “You have to remember that the symphonic organ was the primary vehicle with which the masses became acquainted with the great symphonic and operatic literature.”

Michael Barone broke the ice by recounting the genesis of his radio show, “Pipedreams.” As recording engineer and broadcaster on Minnesota Public Radio, he taped the performances of the American Guild of Organists’ National Convention in 1980, which this reviewer happened to have attended. Barone felt that the performances were of such a quality that they should be heard nationwide. That, combined with the introduction of satellite broadcasting, made it possible. Regarding FOKO, he said, “It is a wise and well energized community…. They know there are challenges, but they will take the two years of the organ’s absence to make the people excited about its return.”

With a background as a music educator, singer, and arts administrator, Kathleen Grammer’s leadership as executive director of FOKO has been key to professionalizing the organization. “When I first moved to town, I attended John Scott’s [of St. Paul’s, London] concert in 2002 and was amazed that there were about 700 people in the audience…. I was just enthralled with the board members and the organization.” She pointed out that the operational budget is small in comparison to the capital investment that is the instrument; the State of Maine does not have the same kinds of funding resources that we have in Massachusetts. Complicating the situation is the fact that the city owns the auditorium and the organ. “We take it on, all of it,” she said. When they realized about three years ago that they were looking at a multi-million-dollar organ restoration, they took it to the City Council. The vote to go ahead was unanimous. But the Council went even further. They allocated $1.5 million for the City’s share.

That’s what I call a community valuing a cultural icon. That’s what I call making an historic musical instrument and its 100 years of traditions relevant for contemporary audiences. Congratulations, Portland; my hat’s off to you. I expect you will be planning quite a festival in 2014-15 for the organ’s triumphant return. If you’re looking for any ideas… Aaron Copland wrote a wonderful organ concerto, you know.

See the review of the Festival’s final concert here.

Richard R. Bunbury, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in Musicology and Music Education at Boston University and Organist and Choirmaster at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal in Dover, MA.

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