April 28, 2013

Kotzschmar Organ preparing for an encore

The jewel in Portland's musical crown is undergoing expert restoration.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

TOLLAND, Conn. - Milovan Popovic holds a tiny metal pipe from Portland's Kotzschmar Organ in the palm of his hand.

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Adam Loagocki works on the console of Portland’s Kotzschmar Organ. He is part of a team of experts who will make the organ “sing” again.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Jim Bennett of the Connecticut organ restoration company Foley-Baker Inc. explains the workings of an organ part.

Additional Photos Below

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It is no larger than a pencil. He blows into an opening, and the pipe emits a whistle of air.

"This," Popovic said, "is what the organ is all about. It's such a beautiful sound."

Known in the organ business as a voicer, Popovic makes an organ sing. He and other technicians with Foley-Baker Inc., the Connecticut-based company hired to refurbish Portland's century-old organ, have spent most of the past year cleaning, fixing and refreshing the grand instrument. And it's only half-finished.

It's a task that's not only being watched in Maine, but around the world. The Kotzschmar, whose home is Merrill Auditorium in Portland City Hall, is one of only two of its kind left in the United States -- a turn-of-the-20th-century pipe organ that still serves as a municipal instrument and has a paid municipal organist.

It's one of the more famous organs in North America, and one of the signature components of Portland arts and cultural life.

Michael Barone, who hosts the American Public Media radio program "Pipedreams," said the Kotzschmar is known worldwide in organ circles.

"Because it has been used consistently through the past century and because it has generated notoriety not just in Portland but around the United States and indeed worldwide, it is one of the landmark pipe organs in the United States," Barone said.

And once the massive refurbishment of all its parts is completed -- the target date is summer 2014 -- the Kotzschmar will sing as it was originally intended, a sound that hasn't been heard properly in more than half a century.

A GIFT TO THE CITY

The organ was dedicated in August 1912, and was a gift to the city by from Cyrus Curtis, who grew up in Portland and made his fortune in the publishing business. Among other things, he published the Ladies' Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as several large newspapers.

Curtis named the organ for his friend, Hermann Kotzschmar, a native of Germany who came to Portland in the mid-1800s and stayed in the city until he died in 1908. He taught music here, and was among the first arts advocates in the city.

Kotzschmar lived with Curtis' parents, who named their son in honor of their musical friend: He was christened Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis.

The organ was the first municipal organ built in the U.S., and Portland remains one of two cities in America that owns an organ and employs a municipal organist. San Diego is the other. Almost all other municipal organs have been lost to time and neglect.

Portland almost lost the Kotzschmar as well. Many observers believe the organ would not be around today if not for the efforts of the Portland-based nonprofit group Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, which has provided maintenance and upkeep on the instrument for three decades and spearheaded the current restoration.

The organ was disassembled and removed from Merrill Auditorium last summer after the instrument's centennial celebration. The reinstallation process will begin in earnest this June, though it will not be completed for another year.

The Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ plans to celebrate the organ's reinstallation in August 2014.

EXPERTISE COUNTS

Foley-Baker got the contract for the Kotzschmar restoration because of its expertise. There aren't many companies in the country that could do the job, and Foley-Baker's staff has a long history with pipe organs as well as an association with the company that built the Kotzschmar originally -- the Austin Organ Co. of Hartford, Conn. Austin is still in operation, and has made some of the schematics from the original installation available to Foley-Baker.

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Additional Photos

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Mee Racz works to prepare the organ’s offset chest for refinishing, as part of the organ restoration project.

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Milovan Popovic, known as a voicer, repairs and adjusts an organ pipe to prepare it to “sing properly.”

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Organ technician David DeBlois applies his expertise to making adjustments on the organ’s internal parts.

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Ray Cornils, Portland’s municipal organist, plays the Kotzschmar Organ at Merrill Auditorium in 2009.

Gregory Rec/File Photo

  


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