PORTLAND — The Kotzschmar Organ at Merrill Auditorium is approaching its 100th year, its windbox held together with duct tape and bailing wire, but it still sounded pretty good in Sunday’s concert, with the Choral Art Society, of masterpieces for chorus and organ.

The concert was held to draw attention to the campaign now under way to fund complete restoration of the organ on its 100th anniversary. The City of Portland has pledged $1.25 million if Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ (FOKO) can raise a matching amount for the project. 

At Sunday’s concert, it was announced that FOKO had already raised $2.2 million, and was appealing for additional funds to provide an endowment  that would not only keep the organ in good repair for the next century, but also provide for continuation of the popular guest artist series presented each summer, plus other events.

The first half of the concert was devoted to choral masterpieces sung by the 125-strong Choral Art Masterworks Chorus, under the direction of Robert Russell, accompanied on the Kotzschmar by municipal organist Ray Cornils. Most of them were pieces that the chorus had sung before, such as “And the Glory” from “Messiah,” and Mendelsson’s “He Watching Over Israel” from “Elijah.”

There were also some lesser-known works, such as “In paradisum” from Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem,” and the “Sanctus” from Gounod’s “Messe.”

My favorite was the section from Brahms’ “German Requiem,” “Denn alles fleish, es ist wie Gras,” (“All flesh is grass”).  Although the tempo was a little slow, the chorus was powerful and precise, with a delightful soprano section, while Cornils did a fine job with the variations on Brahms’ theme.

After intermission, Cornils bulled his way through a difficult and rapid organ showpiece, complete with echo effects, use of the utmost upper and lower registers, multiple voices and a delayed aerial burst at the end – the Toccata in D Major by Marcel Lanquetit. I wasn’t sure the old wind box would stand it, but it merely hissed a little.

The works of the second half were performed by the Choral Arts Singers and included several lesser known works, including an arrangement of “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” by Mark Wilberg that included two saxophones, played by Susan Nourse and Paul Aliapoulis. They made a satisfying addition to the organ, rather like a new stop.

The chorus really came together on H. Balfour Gardiner’s “Evening Hymn,” which sounded romantically like wind sweeping through the trees, but their crowning glory was Gustav Holst’s setting of Psalm 148, which would have made the composer proud.


Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: [email protected]