in: Reviews

August 24, 2012

Auld Lang Syne For Now for Kotzschmar Organ

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The celebration honoring the widely renowned Kotzschmar Memorial Organ at Merrill Auditorium in the City Hall of Portland, ME, concluded in grand fashion on Wednesday, August 22nd, precisely 100 years after the instrument’s inauguration. It was also the last time the organ will be heard for approximately two years as it is about to undergo a $2.5 million restoration by Foley-Baker, Inc. of Tolland, CT. The City of Portland has already appropriated $1.5 million and Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ (FOKO) has raised the balance.

Hermann Kotzschmar, born in 1829 in Finsterwalde, Germany, emigrated to the U.S. at age 19. While in Boston, Kotzschmar met Cyrus Libby Curtis, an amateur musician from Portland, who suggested he move there to find work. Kotzschmar arrived in Portland in July 1849 and lived with the Curtis family for his first year there. In June 1850, Curtis’s first son was born and named Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis, in Kotzschmar’s honor. Hermann Kotzschmar died on April 15, 1908, at the age of 78, from a cerebral hemorrhage. Earlier that year, a fire had destroyed the Portland City Hall. When a new city hall was built, Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis, having become a wealthy publisher, donated an organ for the auditorium in the building, on the condition that it be a memorial to Hermann Kotzschmar. The Kotzschmar Memorial Organ, built by Austin Organ Co. and thought to be the second-largest in the world at the time, was dedicated on August 22, 1912.

Two outstanding organists, Ray Cornils (the Municipal Organist of Portland) and Peter Richard Conte (Grand Court Organist of the Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia), frequently shared the stage with the Kotzschmar Festival Brass: John Schnell and Betty Rines, trumpets, John Boden, French horn, Nicholas Orovich and Mark Manduca, trombones, and Nancy Smith, percussion, in a diverse program that nevertheless emphasized American composers.

The evening commenced with The Star-Spangled Banner, arranged by Conte for organ and brass to accompany the audience’s singing. In the introduction it was clear almost immediately that even five brass players could be virtually covered up by the huge organ without reaching “full organ.” Fortunately, in an accompaniment this was of less consequence, and thereafter both organists carefully registered the instrument to avoid any imbalance.

John Knowles Paine, the first person appointed a full professor of music in the United States (at Harvard University), was born in Portland, had his first music lessons with Hermann Kotzschmar, and completed his musical education in Germany. In Cornils’s spoken introduction to Paine’s Concert Variations on the Austrian Hymn, he did not omit mention of the unsavory associations that Haydn’s famous tune, Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser (which Haydn also employed in the second movement of his famous “Kaiser” Quartet, Op. 76 no. 3) acquired under the Nazis, but reminded us as well of its English hymn text: Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken. His performance was an engaging tour of some of the organ’s plethora of solo reeds and flutes; it was also notable for Cornils’s bravura pedaling in the fourth variation and concluding fugue.

The Kotzschmar is a prominent example of symphonic organ-building, a trend reaching its peak in the early part of the 20th century. It was only logical that Portland’s third Municipal Organist (1921-23) was the world-renowned British performer Edwin H. Lemare, whose transcriptions of beloved orchestral pieces were legendary. Conte gave us a lush rendering of Lemare’s arrangement of the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser; Conte’s execution was orchestral from the start with a wealth of colors (the massed string stops were a highlight) and constant crescendos/decrescendos. After a grandiloquent climax, the very extended tapering off was wonderfully smooth and seamless. At the conclusion, the seraphic softest string celestes became so delicate it was virtually impossible to tell when the sound ended. Later on, Conte performed Lemare’s Carmen Suite, featuring the best-known episodes from Bizet’s opera. Again, his mastery of the orchestral idiom was plain to hear. If he made use of a degree of rubato that an orchestra of many players could not hope to achieve, one couldn’t say that it didn’t fit the opera’s vivid characters. Many of the organ’s percussion stops were employed here, the xylophone and snare drum being especially delicious.

It was interesting to learn that the familiar Samuel A. Ward tune for O Beautiful, for spacious skies was not the preferred one of the poem’s author, Katharine Lee Bates. In fact, the melody she is thought to have preferred was that by the first Municipal Organist of Portland, Will C. Macfarlane, as printed in our program notes. With Cornils holding forth on the organ, we in the audience had a chance to sing again. With all due respect to Bates and Macfarlane, I think the correct choice of tune was made, though it was of course interesting to hear a quite different alternative.

Keeping with the patriotic theme, another highlight was a work premiered by Cornils on the Kotzschmar in May: Casey at the Bat by Robin Dinda of Fitchburg, MA. The work required a narrator, the evocative George Shabo, to read the famous 1888 poem by Ernest L. Thayer. Casey called for a mixture of ballpark organ, theater organ, and concert organ, and Cornils was equally adept in all three. Dinda blended the chromatically rising figures heard at any major-league stadium, the musical descriptions of the action such as a theater organ would provide for a silent movie, and a clever set of variations on Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Both Shabo and Cornils performed with an infectious sense of fun. It seems safe to predict that this piece will have an appreciative audience anywhere there are diehard sports fans — which is to say, anywhere in the U.S.

The program finished with the Adagio and Finale from Camille Saint Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 “avec orgue”, arranged for brass, percussion, and organ by Steven Verhaert. Cornils conducted and Conte played the organ. The Adagio made a handsome effect with sustained quiet brass playing and use of some of the organ’s most delectable soft sounds. Verhaert’s arrangement was not as consistently successful in the Finale, however, making curiously little use of the organ beyond its original solo part. Passages such as the first statement of the main theme by soft strings and rippling arpeggios on the piano, simply could not be reproduced by brass and consequently sounded hollow and monochromatic. Any fortissimo passages, however, particularly the ending, had all the thundering power one could wish for; throughout the program it was Conte’s and Cornils’s achievement entirely to conceal any indication that the organ needed restoration.

The well-deserved standing ovation led to a single encore cum vaudeville act: both organists played a rather elaborate duet arrangement of Auld Lang Syne (one final audience sing-along) with curly paper streamers thrown around the auditorium as though it were New Year’s. Simultaneously, a hard-hat crew from Foley-Baker, Inc. set up a step ladder and began removing individual pipes from the organ’s façade — a bittersweet moment, to be sure — and standing in formation with these pipes across half the length of the stage. Though two years seems an eternity at the moment, it seems likely that Ray Cornils and his associates will find an equally spectacular way to welcome back the fully restored organ, and we greatly look forward to it.

See related review of the first two nights of the festival here and another BMInt article here.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach, and choir member at Trinity Church, Copley Square and in the Back Bay Chorale.

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