James Kennerley’s “Bach Birthday Bash” Wednesday evening at Merrill Auditorium was actually a day shy of the 334th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth. But for anyone inclined to quibble, by the time Portland’s municipal organist began his recital, it was well past midnight in Leipzig, where Bach spent much of his life; so on Bach’s own turf, it was legitimately his birthday.

Like his predecessor, Ray Cornils, Kennerley is an outgoing player, eager to expand the audience for organ recitals, and to foster love and respect for the Kotzschmar organ by offering spoken introductions to the music at hand, personalizing their performances for listeners who might otherwise find organ recitals dry or otherwise off-putting. Their styles are a bit different: Where Cornils’ showmanship extended to a sparkly wardrobe, Kennerley dresses in a plain black tuxedo, and discusses the music at greater length, usually with humorous asides.

Some might find Kennerley’s introductions overly chatty, but given the absence of program notes, his approach makes sense. And the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ’s continued use of a large screen showing close-up views of the organ’s manuals and pedals (and Kennerley’s playing) helps as well, further reducing the distance between player and listener. In any case, the audience at Merrill was larger than it often has been for organ recitals, so these popularizing touches appear to be working.

One thing Kennerley’s recital demonstrated was his openness to different, one might even say antithetical, interpretive approaches. Half the works on the all-Bach program – the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (BWV 542), the Chorale Prelude, “Vor deinen Thron” (BWV 668), and the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 582) – were played with the scholarly orthodoxy you would expect from a musician who came through the Historical Performance program at the Juilliard School and who has worked plentifully with period-instrument ensembles.

That meant fairly reserved choices of tone color, reflecting the sounds of the organs available to Bach in 18th-century Germany, rather than the full, kaleidoscopic range of timbres available on the Kotzschmar organ. The only oddity, in this section of the program, was his decision to put the Chorale Prelude between the G minor Fantasia and Fugue, which are more typically played together. But it turned out to be a thoughtful move – an arrangement that recast the works almost as a sonata, with the dramatically dissonant Fantasy as the opening movement, the Fugue as a lively finale, and the quiet, serene Chorale Prelude, in a sublimely focused performance, as the central slow movement.

The program’s opening work, Kennerley’s transcription of the spirited Sinfonia that opens Cantata No. 29, “Wir danken dir, Gott” (BWV 29), was decidedly more freewheeling, in terms of registration, taking in many of the Kotzschmar organ’s brighter colors, and using the instrument’s five manuals to give the piece an orchestral heft and variety.

Kennerley’s decision to transcribe this movement, originally for orchestra and choir, follows an impulse he could trace to Bach himself: Bach aficionados will also know it as the Prelude to both the Partita No. 3 for solo violin (BWV 1006) and the Lute Suite No. 4 (BWV 1006a).

For me, his transcription was only partially successful. It did capture the energy of the choral writing and the vitality of the perpetual-motion orchestral scoring. But the balances seemed off, with the choral sections overpowering the orchestral figures. I had a similar problem with Kennerley’s more straightforward performance of the C minor Passacaglia and Fugue, where the crucial bass line sounded weak, almost whispered, in its first appearance.

The second half of the program was devoted to transcriptions as well – Kennerley’s rescoring of the Italian Concerto (BWV 971) and a version of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903) by the 19th- and early 20th-century composer Max Reger. Both are more typically heard on the harpsichord, which has a very different kind of articulation than the organ – which made these transcriptions startling, at first.

It was hard to come fully to terms with the translation from the needle-sharp harpsichord sound to the sustained organ timbres in the opening movement of the Italian Concerto, but in the slow movement, the organ sound worked exquisitely, and it seemed natural in the finale, as well. Reger’s version of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, by contrast, sounded as if it were written for an organ with the Kotzschmar’s rich palette.

As an encore, Kennerley gave a vigorous performance of the “Gigue” Fugue in G major (BWV 577).

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

Twitter: kozinn

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 4:34 p.m. on March 22, 2019, to correct the first reference to composer Max Reger.


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