The Australian organist Thomas Heywood has performed on the Kotzschmar Organ several times over the years and was sufficiently taken with the instrument, even before its extensive renovation, to record a CD on it in 2010. That recording, “Krazy ‘Bout Kotzschmar” (on the Pro Organo label) was devoted to Heywood’s characteristic mixture of organ originals and orchestral transcriptions. On Tuesday evening, Heywood returned with another “Krazy ‘Bout Kotzschmar” program, similarly constituted, to open the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ season.

For fans of classical organ recitals, this year’s Friends series is puzzlingly slender. Last season, the organization presented several soloists with international reputations, plus concerts with choir and opera singers, and two evenings in which virtuoso organists improvised scores for silent films – not the classical repertory, as such, but a justly honored tradition among organists, who are among the few classical musicians to keep the art of improvisation alive. And Orgelfest16, this summer, offered three superb classical recitals and a theater organ program.

This season, Heywood’s cheerfully named and exuberantly played program is the only classical recital on the prospectus. There is also a single film night, with Jonathan Ortloff playing a score for the 1920 version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The remaining concerts are a Christmas program and a family concert, both presided over by Ray Cornils, Portland’s excellent (and soon departing) municipal organist, and pitched for a different audience.

It’s easy to understand why the Friends have cut back on classical concerts. Most draw only a few hundred devoted listeners, where Merrill is nearly full for the film nights and popular programs. An organization like Friends has a duty to remain solvent.

But if this year’s cutback portends an abandonment of classical organ concerts (it’s a short step from one concert to zero), that would be a disgrace. What is the point of renovating such an extraordinary instrument, or even having one, if no one will be playing the most magnificent repertory composed for it?

Heywood’s concert provided an unusual view of that repertory, dominated as it was by transcriptions. But his fascination with playing orchestral works makes perfect sense on the Kotzschmar, for both historical and technical reasons.

Historically, his program glanced back at a time when municipal pipe organs were used largely to play this music, in the absence of regular orchestral concerts and before high fidelity recordings were available. Technically, his chosen works demanded as thorough a test of the Kotzschmar’s coloristic resources as I’ve heard, and the results were dazzling.

In several operatic selections, including a waltz from Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” which opened the program, the Act I Prelude from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which followed immediately, Heywood coaxed both a shimmering, pianissimo string sound and a robust mix of full-throttle string, woodwind and brass textures from the organ. And a selection from the ballet repertory – the “Variation dansée” from Delibes’s “Sylvia” – gave Heywood an opportunity to test several novelty stops, including the harp, bird call and bells.

The heart of his program, though, were Heywood’s own transcription of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and an arrangement of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony (both movements) by the British organist and composer John Stuart Archer.

Both tested the Kotzschmar’s string timbres, clarinets, flutes and French horn rigorously, but what made Heywood’s readings work, in the end, was his sometimes straightforward, sometimes idiosyncratic interpretive sensibility. You could quibble about whether this or that turn of phrase was too brisk, or perhaps overemphasized, but Heywood kept you waiting to hear what he would do next, and what light his phrasing would throw on the work as a whole.

He offered a few short works composed for the organ, as well, with Eugène Gigout’s “Grand Choeur Dialogue” making the most of the antiphonal pipes in Merrill’s ceiling, and both Louis Vierne’s “Carillon de Westminster” and Henri Mulet’s “Carillon-Sortie” demanding large timbral palettes and a virtuoso technique.

If the Friends’ mission is to show off the mighty Kotzschmar in all its glory, it needs to find ways to lure more listeners to its recitals. Cutting back on them is not a solution.

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

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