For the finale of Orgelfest16, the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ presented Ray Cornils, Portland’s municipal organist since 1990 and essentially the public face of the Kotzschmar organ. Cornils has long been one of the biggest draws on the Friends series; only its organ-with-film concerts draw notably bigger crowds.

Cornils’ recent announcement that he would retire at the end of 2017 may have lured more people to Merrill Auditorium for his Tuesday evening recital as well. At the pre-concert interview, one listener asked Cornils whether he would commit to performing on the Kotzschmar in future years. Cornils said he could not promise that, partly because he planned to travel, but also because he thought his continued presence might be unfair to whoever succeeds him.

Not surprisingly, there was a clear sense, during the recital, of an era winding down, even though nothing about Cornils’ themed program – “Organ Powerhouses,” an exploration of mainly secular works composed for grand concert organs – was in any way sentimental or retrospective.

The only autobiographical note in Cornils’ spoken introductions turned up at the very end. Having cast each piece as an illustration of the kinds of power organ music can project (humor and joy, for example), he spoke about “the power of friendship” in his introduction to the program’s final work, Charles-Marie Widor’s “Salvum fac populum tuum” (Op. 84), referring not to the music itself, but to his collaboration with other musicians during his time in Portland, most notably the Kotzschmar Festival Brass, a brass and percussion sextet, which joined him for the Widor and several other works.

Cornils and the Festival Brass opened the concert together as well, with “Sunrise,” the opening section of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” For Strauss, the music raised the curtain on an involved orchestral meditation on the work of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, but most listeners these days associate the brief, portentous piece as the music heard at the start of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Both views suit Cornils’ sometimes philosophical, sometimes theatrical style, and the arrangement, by Rick Grassler, captures the score’s essence by retaining the distinctive brass and percussion figures, and putting the orchestral fabric into the organist’s hands.

The brass group, or parts of it, also joined Cornils for Rolf Smedvig’s arrangement of Bach’s “My Spirit Be Joyful” (from Cantata No. 146, which, with the Widor, broke away from the secular theme) and Paul Erwin’s reconfigurations of Gabriel Fauré’s exquisitely melancholy Pavane and Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” The Bach worked beautifully for brass and organ; the Fauré and Ravel less so, partly because the brass and organ textures are less ravishing than Fauré’s orchestral original and either Ravel’s piano or orchestral versions, but also, because the suppleness of both works was lost in an oddly rigid performance.


The Widor, by contrast, was vivid and bristling with energy. Originally scored for a slightly larger brass complement, the work was presented in an arrangement by Cornils that captured all of its energy, and even a page-turning accident that momentarily derailed the performance scarcely tarnished this full-throttle account.

The solo works on the program suited the “powerhouses” theme, particularly if you took to heart Cornils’ comment, during the pre-concert interview, that powerful did not necessarily mean loud. There was loudness, of course: Joseph Bonnet’s “Variations de Concert” (Op. 1), César Franck’s “Pièce Heroique” and Marcel Dupré’s Prelude and Fugue in B major (Op. 7, No. 1) all draw on the organ’s full range, and Cornils was not shy about reveling in the Kotzschmar’s might.

But Cornils was at his best in music that depended less on overwhelming sonic grandeur and more on light-spirited humor. He was clearly in his element in the “Line Dance” movement from Noel Rawsthorne’s “Dance Suite” (1997), a tour of graceful melodies that included the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” (the basis of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”) and a passing nod to “Old McDonald” (complete with barnyard sound effects). And the “Cats” Scherzo from Jean Langlais’ “American Suite” (1959) let him show off his fleetness and entertaining interpretive sensibility as he scampered, with cat-like tread, up, down and across the manuals.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: kozinn

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