in: Reviews

September 30, 2014

Kotzschmar: 100 Stops After 100 Years

by

FOKO photo

FOKO photo

Merrill Auditorium in Portland (ME) City Hall welcomed home a much-missed, multi-ton friend on Saturday. The Hermann Kotzschmar Memorial Organ had been removed from the hall in August 2012, almost exactly 100 years after its inauguration, and was absent for two years undergoing a complete renovation by Foley-Baker, Inc. of Tolland, Connecticut. The gifted performers were Ray Cornils, Portland’s Municipal Organist; Peter Richard Conte, Grand Court Organist at the renowned Wanamaker Organ of Macy’s Philadelphia store; and the Kotzschmar Festival Brass: Dana Oakes, Betty Rines, and Robinson Pyle, trumpets; Nina Miller and John Boden, horns; Mark Manduca, Sebastian Jerosch, and Tom Michaud, trombones; Don Rankin, tuba; Nancy Smith and Richard Kelly, percussion. Striking a balance between entertaining and more serious classical repertoire, the festive program included a video projection of the organist’s limbs, enabling the audience to marvel at the deft manipulation of keys, preset buttons, pedals, swell boxes, etc. on a console with nearly 100 buttons, 31 toe-studs, five manuals plus pedalboard, 30+ coupler tablets, five expression pedals (four swell boxes and crescendo pedal), and over 170 stops. More on the interesting history of Hermann Kotzschmar and the organ dedicated to his memory can be read here.

A commission for this occasion by Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ (FOKO) began the musical program. The Concertino FOKO, Op. 1073, by Carson Cooman (b. 1982) was given its world premiere by Cornils, organ, and the Kotzschmar Festival Brass conducted by Conte. In the composer’s description: “The music begins with a raucous salvo by brass and percussion, attempting to wake up the sleeping organ. The sleepy organ responds with its quietest sounds, and the brass try again, getting a bit more of a response. After a third try, the organ bursts awake in a vibrant mini-toccata in which the brass and percussion joyfully join. A slower, lyrical middle section combines solo stops in the organ with solos for the brass. A cadenza for the organ pedals leads to a return of the opening music and a blazing and vibrant conclusion.” Cornils and the brass gave a (literally?) rousing performance of this effective pièce d’occasion offering both pleasant lyricism in the relaxed passages and exciting display in the more brilliant ones while displaying the seductive strings and smooth flutes of the rejuvenated organ.

Percy Fletcher, a renowned English organist and composer in the early 20th century, dedicated his Festival Toccata to Edwin Lemare, his countryman, the most highly paid organist of the early 20th century, and the third Municipal Organist of Portland. The Festival Toccata is unlike stereotypical French toccatas which give the tune to the pedals under a brilliant accompaniment in the manuals; in this case, chords, hammered in alternation between the hands, include both tune and accompaniment. At Cornils’s very rapid tempo, these sixteenth-note chords frequently came uncomfortably near synchronizing. There were compensations, however, in the entertaining use of some of the organ’s many “gadgets”: xylophone, glockenspiel, tambourine, and cymbal. In the more lyrical middle section delightful antiphonal effects came into play using pipes in the front and back of the auditorium. None of the above effects is specified by Fletcher, but given his wide-ranging musical tastes, one imagines he would heartily approve.

Cornils next showed how well this symphonic organ can handle the polyphony of Johann Sebastian Bach, playing Bach’s Fugue in E-flat (“St. Anne”), BWV 552. The first part of the triple fugue was played on a single stop (an 8’ principal) which sang its solo most sweetly. As the fugue’s complexity built in the second and third parts, the registrations increased in power and the tempo in speed. The culmination, with Bach bringing all three fugue subjects together, was thrilling.

A 21-year-old Leo Sowerby wrote the organ piece Comes Autumn Time in a single day, and later, in both its original and orchestrated versions, it became one of his most popular works, infusing an extroverted toccata-like piece with refreshing jazzy harmonies. After Conte read the Bliss Carman poem (“Autumn”) that inspired Sowerby’s composition, he gave it a scintillating performance with plenty of colors. Especially striking was a spot in the middle, again using the antiphonal division, that made the lush string celestes seem to migrate across the hall from front to back.

Alexandre Guilmant’s most popular work is the Sonata No. 1 in D Minor for organ, particularly the finale. An alternate version of the sonata, scored for organ and orchestra, is known as Symphonie No. 1; Cornils arranged the finale’s orchestral part for brass and percussion, again playing the organ part while Conte directed the brass. This stormy finale has a great deal of 16th-note organ passagework in the mostly fortissimo outer sections, punctuated by staccato brass chords, and therefore it didn’t seem odd that one could seldom hear the brass. Only when Cornils closed the swell boxes was the balance rectified. The middle section tune, on string celestes with swell box largely closed, was of course more successful and showed the sweet quality of brass instruments at piano. When this tune returned in fff triumph at the end with everyone letting fly, the organ and brass worked together to spine-tingling effect.

After intermission the audience sang The Star-Spangled Banner with thunderous accompaniment. Happily, the great majority of this audience remembered all the words and sang heartily. There were speeches by several officers of FOKO recognizing the many people who made the organ’s renovation possible. Finally, FOKO’s president emeritus read the brief speech given by Cyrus Curtis, the organ’s donor, at its August 1912 inauguration—a moving paean to the benefits of a tight-knit community and the role of music in bringing it together.

Keeping with the idea of praise, Cornils played the organ for Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s Praise the Lord with Drums and Cymbals (alla Händel) and Conte conducted the Kotzschmar Festival Brass. Though Cornils’s showmanship quota remained high, most of the work was reasonably Handelian, if one didn’t mind the use of the organ’s xylophone, triangle, glockenspiel, and castanets (!). The playing of all concerned was skillful and well integrated.

In tribute to the organ’s namesake, Hermann Kotzschmar, Cornils played one of Kotzschmar’s compositions, Leviathan March. If the name mentally conjures up Moby-Dick, let me quickly reassure our readership that this was a friendly, “let-me-entertain-you” sort of sea monster. This fun carnival music abounded with “gadget” stops as well as some very creative, colorful combinations, e.g., an 8’ krummhorn-like reed paired with a 1’ principal—the same pitches three octaves apart.

The symphonic music peaked with the Love Trio and Finale of Act III of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, as transcribed by the performer, Peter Richard Conte. Beginning with a very soft reed over equally shy foundations, the luscious Trio built gradually in ardor and power, a seamless, immense crescendo comparable to Isolde’s Liebestod. After the ecstatic climax the descent, much briefer but magical nonetheless, made massed strings seem to evanesce into the air. The conclusion glittered with soft bitonal chords played staccato on the glockenspiel. We had no time to enjoy this dreamy moment before Conte plunged headlong into the boisterous—bordering on bombastic—waltz of the Finale. (To be fair, though, even a small pause would have likely led to an interruption for applause.) It was enjoyable for its vigor and use of the tambourine (struck and shaken) and cymbal percussion stops, but coming so hard on the heels of the Love Trio, it was the proverbial bull in the china shop.

After noting that “organists can take themselves too seriously sometimes,” Cornils adroitly administered a remedy in Nigel Ogden’s Penguins’ Playtime, a piece not unlike Zez Confrey’s piano pieces. It provided another kaleidoscope of colors, more stereophonic effects from the antiphonal division, and the most extensive tour yet of the organ’s literal “bells and whistles” (including birds and a train whistle). A definite crowd-pleaser!

The announced program concluded with Louis Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster, arranged once again by Cornils to add brass and percussion. Barring one moment of poor intonation between trumpet and organ, this fresh take on an old chestnut of the repertoire worked very well; the timpani in particular lent extra excitement to Cornils’s solid playing.

After the Westminster’s roof-raising conclusion and a standing ovation we had a single encore, a final collaboration of the organ and the Kotzschmar Festival Brass in an arrangement of the Widor Toccata. If there were a few more finger slips than before from Cornils at the organ (fatigue had to factor in at this late stage), there was still unflagging energy and electricity. Again, the audience gave its vociferous approval.

It was heart-warming to see this 1900-seat hall nearly full to greet the renovated Municipal Organ. Ray Cornils and FOKO are obviously doing something right, and it bodes well for the extended future of this very important organ.

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. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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