Ray Cornils, the public face of Portland’s 104-year-old Kotzschmar organ and one of just two municipal organists in the country, will leave his post at the end of 2017.
Cornils, who began as municipal organist in 1990, told the board of the nonprofit Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ of his retirement this month. During his tenure, the Kotzschmar organ has been a vital part of the city’s arts and cultural scene. Cornils helps to plan concerts, performs, puts on educational programs and gives tours of the grand organ and its 6,800 pipes.
Board members and staff said Friday that Cornils’ skill as an organist, combined with his warm personality and love of the Kotzschmar, will make him difficult to replace.
“It’s so hard to put all of what he does into a job description,” said Tom Cattell, president of the Friends board. “If we set out to find someone exactly like Ray – I think it sets us up for disappointment.”
Cornils, 60, said Friday he had been “contemplating” retirement for some time. He wanted to give the nonprofit a lot of notice, since concerts and organ events are scheduled a year to two years in advance. He said he plans to retire from his job as minister of music at First Parish Church in Brunswick around the same time. His future plans include traveling and continuing to play music, though probably not in public settings.
“Playing and practicing music is a spiritual thing for me, so I’ll certainly continue,” said Cornils, who lives in Woolwich.
Cornils said one of the things he’ll miss most about being municipal organist is working with young people, introducing them to music and helping them explore their own creativity.
With more than a year and a half until Cornils’ departure, the board has time to find the right replacement, Cattell said. He thinks the organ’s reputation, which Cornils has worked to build, will help attract qualified applicants.
“There are many world-class organists who want to visit Portland to see this organ,” said Cattell.
Cornils is well-known for his annual “Christmas with Cornils” concert each December. The 2017 version of that concert will be his last performance as municipal organist. The organ is used in about two dozen performances each year.
For a couple of generations, Cornils has been the person most closely associated with the so-called “Mighty Kotzschmar.” He performs on the organ, helps plan shows by visiting organists, puts on youth concerts, gives presentations in schools, and conducts public tours of the organ and its pipes. Many of the pipes are hidden out of sight of the audience.
Cornils has been known to give impromptu tours as well, said Kathleen Grammer, executive director of the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ.
“If somebody calls and says they’re coming to town and would love to see the organ, Ray will (give a tour) if he can,” Grammer said. “He really is the face of our organization, a great ambassador for the Kotzschmar Organ.”
Cornils’ tenure has included a $2.6 million reconstruction of the organ that was finished in 2014. The organ was taken apart and removed from the auditorium to be rebuilt and restored.
“I’m happy that the organ is in such good shape now, much better than when I started,” Cornils said.
Cornils has the title of municipal organist, and the organ, in Merrill Auditorium at City Hall, is owned by the city. But the Friends group hires the municipal organist and pays most of his part-time salary, Grammer said. She would not say what the salary is.
Portland has a long tradition of municipal organists: Cornils is the 10th person to hold the position. The Kotzschmar organ was a gift to the city in 1912 from businessman Cyrus Curtis, donated in the memory of his former music teacher, Hermann Kotzschmar.
The only other municipal organist post in the country is in San Diego, Grammer said. The organist there, Carol Williams, has performed in Portland on the Kotzschmar.
Cornils grew up in Sterling, Illinois, where his father was an accountant and his mother a math teacher. He began playing piano at age 7 and quickly knew he wanted a career in music. He earned a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In the late 1980s, he was hired by First Parish Church in Brunswick.
Cattell said Friday that he was “surprised” by Cornils’ announcement. He knew that Cornils would retire someday, but never allowed himself to seriously consider the possibility.
“He’s such a beloved figure, I just didn’t want to think about it,” Cattell said. “He’s so joyful on stage, talking about the organ. It’s hard to imagine anyone better-suited.”