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'Christmas with Cornils,' Phyzgig top upcoming choices


'Christmas with Cornils,' Phyzgig top upcoming choices


By Scott Andrews

With the Christmas and New Year holidays almost upon us, it’s time to holler Ho! Ho! Ho! and sing “Auld Lang Syne” – and wrap up Out & About’s coverage of the 2008 arts and entertainment calendar.

Of all the dozens of annual Christmas events, the last on the schedule is always the annual celebration by Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ. “Christmas with Cornils” is its official moniker, recognizing Ray Cornils as the instigator and principal artist. It’s slated for Dec. 23 this year, and Cornils will be joined by the Kotzschmar Festival Brass and two other groups.

Continuing with annual events, let’s note that the Phyzgig festival has become part of the Portland area’s fabric of life over the past few years. The 2008 edition is bigger and better than ever, and slated for Dec. 26-31. Avner the Eccentric, Portland’s internationally known mime, headlines a cast of a dozen-plus.

Finally let’s note that Empire Dine and Dance wrapped up its first year in business last week. Owner/impresario Bill Umbel has certainly made a positive mark on Portland’s vibrant music scene.

And with the end of 2008 looming on the event horizon and A&E activity approaching its annual early winter slowdown, “Out & About” will take the two holiday weeks off, resuming Jan. 7.

SUBHED 'Christmas with Cornils'

From the Magi of biblical times to present-day family gatherings around the tree, Christmas is always associated with gifts and the giving spirit. So it’s apropos that one of Portland’s favorite Christmas arts events celebrates one of the greatest gifts the Port City ever received.

In 1912 the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ was donated by Portland-born publishing magnate Cyrus Curtis to honor the name of his boyhood music teacher, pianist/organist/conductor/composer Hermann Kotzschmar.

The German-born Kotzschmar had been invited to Portland in 1849 by Curtis’ parents and he was a pillar of the city’s cultural life for the next 47 years. His principal job was organist/music director of the First Parish Church on Congress Street, plus he gave concerts, conducted choral groups and composed hymns and anthems.

The instrument itself was built by the Austin Organ Company of Connecticut; it numbers more than 6,800 pipes and ranks among the largest and finest in the world. Tours of the organ, including a walk-through of the central wind chamber, are offered every summer. I’ve gone through several times and I’m always awed by its size and complexity.

Since 1982, the instrument has been lovingly maintained by Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, a volunteer group that hires a curator and organist. For nearly two decades, Ray Cornils has been the official organist, often playing the instrument himself plus producing several concert series throughout the year with a multinational roster of guest artists.

Of all the year’s concerts, the biggest and most popular always comes up a few days before Christmas. It’s called “Christmas with Cornils,” and features a variety of holiday music for the Kotzschmar and many artists. These include the Kotzschmar Festival Brass – mostly comprising Portland Symphony Orchestra players and University of Southern Maine music professors – and the Parish Ringers. The latter is a handbell choir from Brunswick which Cornils leads. Vocal power will be supplied by Musica de Filia Chamber Choir, a local organization for girls and young women directed by Jaye Churchill.

Catch the spirit of Hermann Kotzschmar and Cyrus Curtis at “Christmas with Cornils,” slated for 7:30 p.m. Dec. 23 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800. Following a long tradition, a limited number of pay-what-you-can tickets will be reserved for sale on the day of the event.

SUBHED Phyzgig festival

Bring on the jugglers and the clowns. Plus the jesters, mimes, multi-musicians and magicians. The occasion is Acorn Productions’ annual celebration of visual jokes, sight gags and “physical comedy” called Phyzgig. Per usual, expect a week-long series of happenings for adults and children that starts the day after Christmas and wraps up on New Year’s Eve. Two downtown Portland venues are used: The Space Gallery at 583 Congress St. and the nearby Portland Performing Arts Center (home of Portland Stage Company) at 25A Forest Ave.

A total of 17 acts are scheduled. Artists come from all over the country, but top billing goes to Portlander Avner the Eccentric, longtime resident of Peaks Island and one of the world’s most celebrated mimes. A few other acts include funny man Alex the Jester, stilt-walker Carmen Banana, the juggling duo Two, dancer Karen Hurll Montanaro, multi-musician Sarah-Jane Moody, magician Norman Ng and the husband-wife team professionally known as Yo-Yo People. The latter’s honors include a Guinness World Record and the 2008 World Yo-Yo Championship.

Let’s look at Phyzgig’s component pieces. The Dec. 26 opening event is the adult-only Cabaret Show, held at Space Gallery. Beer and wine will be served and the humor will cater to more sophisticated tastes.

Vaudeville Shows are scheduled evenings Dec. 27-31 at PPAC. Phyzkidz Shows are slated Dec. 28-30 at Space Gallery, mostly mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

The producer is Mike Levine, a Peaks Islander who’s been exceptionally active in southern Maine theater circles since 1995 when he started up the fondly remembered Oak Street Theatre in Portland. Since the demise of that venue, Levine’s Acorn Productions moved out to the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook. Acorn’s repertory of events and activities include acting classes, Naked Shakespeare, the Cassandra Project, the Maine Short Play Festival and a variety of in-school programming.

Catch the full Phyzgig schedule on the Internet, at or call Acorn Productions at 854-0065.

SUBHED Happy Birthday Empire Dine and Dance

Finally, let’s take note of last week’s first anniversary of Empire Dine and Dance, one of the newest and most spacious venues for live music on Congress Street in Portland. Located on two floors of a former bank building at the corner of Congress and Forest Avenue, it’s the longtime dream of businessman Bill Umbel, who also heads the Bluegrass Music Association of Maine. (The curious name is borrowed from the city’s first Chinese restaurant, which flourished at the site about a century ago.)

Umbel schedules four to six events per week, focusing on “roots” music and Americana, including bluegrass, blues and singer-songwriters. Although he attracts artists on national tours, he’s also very supportive of local musicians. Two of his locally oriented events are scheduled every week: The Stowaways, a bluegrass ensemble holds forth on Monday nights, followed a day later by an evening exclusively devoted to Maine singer-songwriters.

For a full lineup, visit or call 879-8988.

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