Ray Cornils, one of only two municipal organists in the nation, had a memorable birthday at the Friends of Kotzschmar Organ (FOKO) reception celebrating the historic organ’s return after reconstruction.

Mike Foley, whose firm Foley-Baker Inc., took the 102-year-old, 50-ton instrument apart and rebuilt it over the past two years, took the liberty of playing “Happy Birthday” in Cornils’ honor.

Cocktail party guests then enjoyed the world premiere performance of “Concertino FOKO,” composed by Carson Cooman – a preview of the following night’s sold-out concert.

“I was surprised by the clarity and the elegance” to which the instrument has returned, said Cornils, who has been playing the Kotzschmar for 25 years.

“When I heard it before, I knew it had the potential to be something else, but it was so tired out,” said Kathleen Grammer, executive director of FOKO. “When I first heard the organ after it came back, I was in tears.”

“We’re at our best as a city when we all come together to recognize that there’s something critical to the city’s past, critical to the city’s present and critical to the city’s future,” said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, calling the Kotzschmar “one of the world’s major concert organs.”

“There are only two municipal organs left in the whole country out of about 500,” said Peter Plumb, founding president of FOKO. “This organ could have gone the same way.”

“But the city of Portland went full steam ahead. You could tell it meant a lot to them,” said Bruce Lockwood, past president of FOKO. “I wish my dad was here to see it, because he was close to one of the founding members of FOKO and heard the organ during the bad years. It hasn’t sounded like this in 70 years.”

The organ used to make a lot of sounds it wasn’t supposed to make, Lockwood explained.

And it didn’t make many of the fun “toy box” sounds since restored, such as car horns, clocks tolling, train whistles and birds flapping their wings.

“It’s a magnificent instrument, and we have Ray Cornils, who is a treasure,” said Ruth Story of Portland. “He makes the instrument come alive.”

Fifteen-year-old Seamus Gethicker was first smitten by the Kotzschmar at a “Magic of Christmas” concert when he was 7. He’s taken lessons from Cornils and is the youngest of the Kotzschmar tour docents.

“It’s a pretty unique passion,” said his mother, Kym Granger of Bath. “But those who are passionate about it certainly are.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough. She can be contacted at:

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