Katelyn Emerson, a York native who has performed around the world, will play Portland’s Kotzschmar Organ during a livestream concert Friday. Photo by Bernard James

Katelyn Emerson says growing up she was a “glutton for musical punishment” and wanted to play every instrument she could get her hands on.

Until one day, while a sophomore in high school, she heard the power of Portland’s mighty Kotzschmar Organ. She was playing flute in a youth orchestra on stage with Ray Cornils, Portland’s municipal organist at the time. Emerson remembers Cornils’ first chord practically drowning out all the other musicians on stage.

She knew then there was only one instrument she needed to play.

“It was a rather thrilling moment. I heard this grand sound that drowned out the rest of the orchestra. I remember thinking, that’s what I want to do. That’s the moment I knew I wanted to pursue it professionally,” said Emerson, a 2010 graduate of York High School. “With the organ, you can be your own orchestra.”

After winning first prize in the American Guild of Organists’ National Young Artists’ Competition in 2016, Emerson has gone on to perform around the United States and the world, including in England, Sweden, Germany and France. On Friday, she’ll come home to the place where her passion for pipe organs began, when she performs a livestream concert on the Kotzschmar Organ from Portland’s Merrill Auditorium.

Timed to coincide with Mother’s Day weekend, her program is titled “Heroes & Heroines.” It features works that honor men and women who support, love and guide children, by composers Edward Elgar, Charles Tournemire and Joseph Jongen, among others. The concert will be livestreamed at 7 p.m. Friday but will be available on demand through May 31. Tickets for the online concert start at $10 and are available at the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ website.

Emerson lives in Champaign, Illinois, where her husband works as an organ builder. She had been scheduled to play an organ festival in Portland last year and was at Merrill Auditorium in March of 2020 to practice on the Kotzschmar. But that festival got canceled, as did all of Emerson’s in-person performances scheduled for last year. She said she feels “honored” that the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ scheduled this livestream concert for her and timed it to Mother’s Day.

NATURAL GRACE AND ELEGANCE

Both Cornils, who was her teacher for several years, and current Portland Municipal Organist James Kennerley say that Emerson is a rare talent in the pipe organ world who has gained an international reputation while still only in her late 20s. Cornils said that by winning the American Guild of Organists’ award, Emerson was able to receive national exposure, book concerts and gain an international reputation for her organ playing.

Katelyn Emerson, a York native who has performed around the world, will play Portland’s Kotzschmar Organ during a livestream concert Friday. Photo by Joseph Routon

“She’s bright, enthusiastic and inquisitive, and there’s a natural grace and elegance to her playing,” said Cornils, who was Portland’s Municipal Organist from 1990 to 2017. “She has an absolute ease that invites people to join her as she explores the music. And she has the technical chops to back that up.”

Kennerley said Emerson’s technique, ability and “bubbling, infectious personality” help make her a special musician and performer. One who happened to start her organ career in Maine.

“Katelyn is one of the great organ artists of our time, and it’s humbling to think how big a part the Kotzschmar Organ has played in her career,” said Kennerley.

The city-owned Kotzschmar Organ was built into Merrill Auditorium in 1912, when it was known as City Hall Auditorium. The organ has five keyboards, one pedal board, 305 keys and 7,101 pipes.

Emerson’s path to playing pipe organs professionally began when she was in grammar school and watched her brother practicing the piano at home in York. She sat at the piano too, to imitate him at first, but later to play the instrument herself. Her mother plays flute, and Emerson started taking flute lessons as well. By her early teens, she was singing in a children’s choir and was learning the pipe organ through the Young Organist Collaborative, based at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The program is aimed at developing new generations of organists. She also played flute in the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra, which is what she was doing when she shared the stage with Cornils and Kotzschmar.

It was through the Young Organist Collaborative that Emerson met Cornils. She began taking lessons from Cornils and worked with him until she graduated from York High School and left Maine to attend Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, also Cornils’ alma mater. There she got two bachelor’s degrees in organ performance and French.

Maine native Katelyn Emerson performing at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. Photo by Dave Brown

Also at Oberlin, she got to study with visiting professor Olivier Latry, organist of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. In 2015, she received a prestigious Fulbright grant to study in Toulouse, France – putting her French to use – and got a master’s degree in organ in 2020 at the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Germany. Besides winning the American Guild of Organists competition, Emerson won or placed highly in several other U.S. and European competitions or music conferences, paving the way for her to book paying organ gigs around the world.

“She made herself available and open to working with the top people,” Cornils said of Emerson’s studying with Latry, and in Europe. “She has played with great musicians and has really flourished.”

Emerson’s parents, Bill and Susan Emerson, still live in York. Her father retired from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and her mother runs an occupational therapy business. She says she gets to come home fairly often, since she travels regularly to concerts and can usually find a way to take a side trip to Maine.

Emerson has also worked as an organist and with choirs at various churches and gives private lessons. As part of those lessons, she focuses on injury prevention, because playing a pipe organ requires strenuously working fingers, wrists, feet and leg muscles, for the pedals.

She met her husband, David Brown, while playing at a church in Cincinnati, Ohio, a few years ago. A native of Australia, Brown builds and maintains pipe organs and happened to be working on the one Emerson was to play. They’ve been married for about 18 months.

“We dovetail well.  It’s nice that when I’m playing I can have another pair of ears in the room that I trust,” Emerson said.


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