It’s nearly impossible to hear and feel the power of Portland’s Kotzschmar Organ over Zoom.

“The range of sounds it can produce is massive. Even with an amplifier system, you’ll really never capture the experience of hearing it live,” said James Kennerley, Portland’s municipal organist. “One of the cool things about hearing a pipe organ is it’s a visceral experience, you can feel the music.”

On Saturday, audiences will get a chance to feel the Kotzschmar’s power and hear all 7,101 pipes in person for the first time since December 2019. Kennerley will perform a concert titled “America, America!” on the city-owned Kotzschmar organ at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

During much of the pandemic, the only way to hear the Kotzschmar organ was during streamed concerts. But on Saturday, people can see, hear and feel the organ. They’ll also be able to see, and interact, with Kennerley while he’s live and on stage. Masks will be required.

Kennerley said he got the idea for a concert of marches and patriotic music when he was walking around Portland one evening and happened upon a band playing at the bandstand at Fort Allen Park on the Eastern Promenade. He said he realized the marches especially were perfect for a pipe organ, because it can reproduce so many sounds, from trumpet and trombone to flute and percussion.

“You couldn’t play those marches on a piano, you wouldn’t have enough hands and feet to make all the sounds,” said Kennerley.

The 90-minute program features music with patriotic themes or that celebrate America in some way, said Kennerley. The program begins with John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and closes with variations on “America” by Charles Ives. Another Sousa composition, “Liberty Bell March,” is also on the program.

The Kotzschmar Organ in Portland will be played for a live audience Saturday for the first time since 2019. Photo by Len Levasseur

Kennerley said he chose Florence Price’s “Suite for Organ No. 1” because Price was a groundbreaking Black American composer and musician. In the 1930s, her music was played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, marking the first time a major U.S. orchestra played the work of a Black woman.

“She was really a groundbreaker, and this is a really fun piece to play,” said Kennerley. “It’s a fantastic mixture of classical, European and Southern influences.”

Another piece on the program is a version of “America the Beautiful” with music by Portland’s first municipal organist, William C. Macfarlane, who held the job from 1912-18 and 1932-34. The words to the song were originally a poem and many different melodies were written to accompany it. Macfarlane’s version was played quite regularly in the early part of the 20th century, Kennerley said.

At one point during the program, Kennerley will improvise music based on suggestions of “American themes” from the audience. People will be able to suggest any tune or pop song via email or social media. Kennerley will then play the melody and improvise changes to it, the way a jazz musician might take a well-known pop song and make it into something new.

“It’s fun to try to come up with something the audience has never heard before,” said Kennerley.


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