The Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ is presenting a stripped-down series this season, with only three announced concerts. The first was the extraordinary recital, heavy with orchestral transcriptions, that Nathan Laube played Saturday evening at Merrill Auditorium. Still to come are the annual Halloween film night, with Tom Trenney providing a score for the 1925 silent version of “The Phantom of the Opera,” and Ray Cornils’ final “Christmas With Cornils” program. Nothing is listed for the spring.

There may be a good reason for that. The Friends are about to announce Mr. Cornils’ successor as municipal organist, and perhaps they wanted to program only to the end of Cornils’ term. It would make sense, once the organization announces its choice, to quickly schedule a spring recital by its new appointee.

With the spring entirely open, in fact, why not introduce the new municipal organist with two concerts – a classical recital and a theater organ program – just as the candidates for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s podium are each conducting both classical and pops programs? You get the excitement of a new appointment only once; it might as well be done with a splash.

In the meantime, Laube’s recital opened the Friends series with a serious but virtuosic program that reminded listeners what a treasure the Kotzschmar Organ is. A 29-year-old player from Rochester, New York, where he is on the faculty of the Eastman School of Music, Laube proved to be one of the most thoughtful guests the Friends have presented in recent seasons.

At his pre-concert talk, conducted by Cornils, Laube spoke about some of the organs he has played around the world, most notably that of Notre Dame, in Paris, where he said watching the sunrise through the cathedral’s three great windows, as seen from the organ loft after an all-night practicing session, fundamentally changes the way you approach music by the composers who worked there. It was a striking image that made an important point: An organist must respond not only to the demands of the score, but also to the physicality of each instrument, and the qualities of the space it’s in.

He described the Kotzschmar, during that talk, as “a Technicolor instrument,” and in his recital he showed what he meant by that. It was not what you might have expected. As he demonstrated in the opening movement from Charles-Marie Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 5, and in an early 20th century French rarity, Jean Roger-Ducasse’s graceful, painterly “Pastorale,” his palette included pastel hues in fine gradations, not just bright primary colors and flashy effects. He used the Kotzschmar’s more vivid colors sparingly, in fact, but when he did – in the climax of the Widor and the “thunderstorm” section of the Roger-Ducasse – they were especially striking.


Laube’s most memorable performance was a transcription of the Overture to Wagner’s “Tannhauser.” With its opening quotation of the opera’s “Pilgrim’s Chorus,” the work sounds thoroughly at home on the organ, and Laube’s transcription, which drew on earlier versions by S.P. Warren and E.H. Lemare, captured the heft and sweep of the orchestral version without slavishly imitating Wagner’s orchestration.

In the final section, where the pilgrim theme returns, accompanied by descending chromatic string writing, Laube played the string figures with his right hand on one of the organ’s five manuals, in soft, transparent hues, while using his left hand on two other manuals – his thumb on one, the rest of his fingers on the one above – to play the theme, using a blend of brass and reed stops.

That kind of finger and manual splitting is not entirely uncommon in organ playing, but it is more typically used for brief orchestrational effect, not for extended melodies. This is where the large video screen that is a fixture at Kotzschmar concerts is so valuable: Laube’s performance, astonishing to the ear, was even more spectacular when you could see exactly how he made it happen.

Laube closed his program with two more big orchestral works, Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture,” in which he produced a superb balance of suppleness and vigor, and Liszt’s “Les Preludes,” in which he again leaned toward the instrument’s lighter, more transparent hues.

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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