Orgelfest17, this year’s installment of the annual summertime mini-festival presented by the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, brought organists from Texas, New York and Utah to play the mighty instrument in Merrill Auditorium this month. But for the series’ fourth and final offering, on Tuesday evening, the organization kept close to home, putting its spotlight on Ray Cornils, Portland’s municipal organist since 1990.

By virtue of his position, as well as guest performances going back to 1987, Cornils has played this organ more than anyone else over the last three decades and had an important role in its 2012-’14 renovation. He has been heard on many of the city’s church organs as well, most notably at First Parish Church, where he is minister of music. Now he is taking his final laps as Portland’s organ master. He leaves his post at First Parish on Aug. 31 and relinquishes his municipal organist title on Dec. 31, after a final Christmas With Cornils concert on Dec. 19.

So barring any unannounced events (a last-minute substitution for an ailing guest performer, for example), Cornils’ Orgelfest17 concert was his last standard recital program on the Kotzschmar before his planned retirement to Ecuador. And not surprisingly, the program had a valedictory spirit. Called “Music That Moves Me,” it drew on some of Cornils’ favorite works, along with pieces associated with some of his predecessors as municipal organist.

The performance was oddly subdued, by Cornils’ usual standard, at least in superficial matters. Where his recitals have usually included a measure of amusing showmanship, most evident in his choice of sequined jackets in vivid hues, with an intermission costume change, this time he played the full concert in a single, black suit.

For a listener not especially interested in costume changes, that wasn’t an issue, just a change worth noting. But the absence of the large video screen, set beside the organ console in recent years to afford listeners close-up views of the organist’s hands on the manuals and feet on the pedals, seemed a loss.

Cornils’ playing, though, was as colorful and, at times, daring, particularly in the concert’s second half, which began with a performance of César Franck’s Chorale No. 1 in E major. Many organists play this work as a sober, expansive meditation on an original chorale theme. Cornils began his account in that spirit, but he had clearly reconsidered Franck’s scoring and structure, if not necessarily his overall intentions, and highlighted section breaks with striking changes of coloration and texture. Indeed, the final section of the piece took on a symphonic character, complete with cymbal crashes, a touch I haven’t heard in other organists’ readings.


Cornils’ transformations went in the other direction, too. After the Franck, he played the Largo from Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony, in an organ arrangement by Edwin Lemare, Portland’s third municipal organist. Cornils gave a graceful reading of the piece that highlighted its familiar themes within a gentle, appealingly transparent texture that had the effect of making the movement sound as if it were native to the organ, rather than a transcribed symphonic movement.

The one piece in which Cornils pulled out all the stops, so to speak, was in “Flapperette,” a playful novelty by Jesse Greer that had the character of a silent film score, complete with tweeting birds, bells, xylophones, and other effects.

Cornils also gave thoughtful readings of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C major (BWV 547), the variations from Handel’s Concerto No. 1 in G, and a serene Sicilienne by Maria Theresia von Paradis. And he was joined by Kotzschmar Festival Brass for short pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli, Alexandre Guilmant and Richard Strauss – the last, the “Solemn Entry of the Knights of the Order of St. John,” reprised from a program Cornils played on the Kotzschmar the year he was appointed to his position.

As a final retrospective touch, Cornils’ encore was the Toccata from Léon Boëllmann’s “Suite Gothique,” a macabre, almost Halloweenish piece that closed the organ’s (and City Hall’s) dedication concert, exactly 105 years earlier, on Aug. 22, 1912. The organist at that performance was Will C. Macfarlane, who became Portland’s first municipal organist two months later.

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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