Out & About: ‘Christmas With Cornils’ final edition

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Christmas is only days away, and the holiday naturally dominates the performing arts calendar.

Tops in terms of significance is the Dec. 19 performance of Ray Cornils, appearing for the last time as Portland’s official municipal organist, a position he’s held for nearly three decades.

Devotees of choral music have much to celebrate this coming weekend. Oratorio Chorale presents three performances of its annual “Sing We Noel” program on Friday and Saturday in Brunswick, while Renaissance Voices presents a pair of Christmas concerts Saturday and Sunday in Portland.

The Port City’s own 19th-century traditions are celebrated in terpsichorean fashion as Portland Ballet presents five performances of its signature “Victorian Nutcracker” for the next two weekends, first in Westbrook, then in Portland.

‘Christmas With Cornils’

Twenty-seven years ago, when Ray Cornils was appointed to the post of Portland’s official municipal organist – one of only two such gigs in the U.S. – he was asked for his ideas on programming. His first proposal was to create a new annual Christmas concert. And he wanted to call it “Christmas With Cornils.”

It quickly became the most popular event on the annual schedule of the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, the nonprofit support group that oversees the 7,101-pipe instrument on behalf of the city. The massive instrument was donated in 1912 by publishing magnate Cyrus Curtis in memory of his childhood music teacher, Hermann Kotzschmar.

At the time of its installation in Portland City Hall, the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ was the world’s second largest. It remains one of the biggest, and has been upgraded twice over its century-plus span.

On Dec. 19 Cornils will step up to the console of the mighty Kotzschmar and lead “Christmas With Cornils” for the last time.

Cornils’ performance on the organ is of course the central feature of his program, but there are a slew of guest artists who also contribute mightily to this exceptional concert experience. The Kotzschmar Festival Brass is an ensemble of trumpet, trombone, tuba and horn players; most of them are members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. The ChoralArt Singers number nearly 50 voices. Plus there’s the Parish Ringers, a handbell choir from the First Parish Church in Brunswick, where Cornils served as music director for 30 years.

Cornils programming runs the gamut of sacred and secular Christmas music, including popular carols and less-known gems. His organ pieces are chosen to reflect the full range of colors of the instrument.

I’ve attended this concert for the last 10 years or so, and it’s always on my must-do list each December.

Will this really be Cornils final performance on the Kotzschmar? When I spoke with Cornils last summer he told me that after this finale he was heading off to South America to start his retirement. Would he accept an invitation to return as a guest artist at some point in the future? “I’d be honored to accept an invitation as a guest,” he assured me.

(Three months ago, the city and the Friends named James Kennerley, a British-born keyboard wiz who lives in New York, as the 11th municipal organist. A public introduction is scheduled for April 18, 2018.)

Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ present “Christmas With Cornils” at 7 p.m. Dec. 19 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. A public farewell reception follows. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Oratorio Chorale

When Emily Isaacson assumed direction of the Oratorio Chorale four years ago, one of her early moves was to create “Sing We Noel,” intended to be an annual, hour-long concert of traditional vocal music accompanied by a small chamber orchestra.

This Friday and Saturday, the fourth edition of “Sing We Noel” will be presented in Brunswick.

Isaacson’s program will be an inspiring celebration of the season for listeners of all ages, combining organ and handbell music, sing-along Christmas carols, spirituals and traditional music by George Frideric Handel, Gabriel Faure and others.

“‘Sing We Noel’ is one of my favorite concerts of the year,” says Isaacson. “That’s because it’s not just about the music, it’s about the magical moments that music can create to help us reflect and celebrate.”

Three performances are scheduled for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 27 Pleasant St. in Brunswick: Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Visit OratorioChorale.org.

Renaissance Voices

Renaissance Voices is a 24-year-old, 20-member a cappella ensemble that performs two programs per year. Best-known is the annual Christmas concert in Portland. I’ve been a regular attendee for half a dozen years and I’ve already reserved my tickets for this weekend.

In addition to presenting works from its namesake period, Renaissance Voices has a longstanding commitment to promoting works by contemporary women. Poetry and readings are frequently interpolated into the program. Some of these are fondly remembered childhood experiences, while others are very humorous – including tales of visiting relatives who overstay their Christmas welcome.

Renaissance composers will be represented this weekend by Orlando di Lasso and Hieronymus Praetorius. Sally Herman, an American choral director and music professor, will be one of several contemporary composers represented.

Renaissance Voices performs its Christmas program twice at St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland: Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. Visit RenaissanceVoices.net.

‘Victorian Nutcracker’

Twenty-five years ago, Portland Ballet introduced its signature version of “The Nutcracker” Christmas classic by re-imagining the setting as Portland’s Victoria Mansion, the magnificent 19th-century edifice on Danforth Street. Most of the characters were renamed and the set was entirely based on Portland scenes and people. Everything else remained the identical terpsichorean spectacular as the original ballet, which is based on a 12-year-old girl’s dream on Christmas Eve.

Retitled “The Victorian Nutcracker,” this uniquely localized version has endured for a quarter of a century, performed every December by Portland Ballet’s professional dancers and advanced students. I’ve seen “The Victorian Nutcracker” quite a few times in past years and I’ve already reserved my tickets for 2017.

Five performances are slated. Two take place with recorded music at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center at Westbrook Middle School, 471 Stroudwater St., Dec. 16-17 at 2 p.m. The following weekend the production moves into Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall for three performances with live orchestra: Dec. 22 at 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 23 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800 for all performances.

Ray Cornils will give his final performance as Portland’s official municipal organist on Dec. 19. “Christmas With Cornils” features several guest artists, including the Kotzschmar Festival Brass, pictured here.