Out & About: Kotzschmar returns to Portland, 'Avenue Q' entertains in South Portland

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Portland’s leading claim to international musical fame is the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ, a behemoth among instruments that has been a centerpiece of the city’s cultural life since 1912. Two years ago – immediately following its centennial celebration – the organ was dismantled and shipped to Connecticut for rebuilding.

The Kotzschmar was re-installed in Merrill Auditorium last month, and the first two return performances are scheduled within the next few days. First is this Saturday’s Grand Opening Concert, hosted by the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ. Then on Tuesday, Sept. 30, the Kotzschmar will be featured when the Portland Symphony Orchestra opens its 90th season.

Lyric Music Theater opened its 62nd season last weekend in South Portland with a fine community production of “Avenue Q,” the 2003 Broadway hit that prominently features both puppets and live actors.

Lori McKenna is a singer-songwriter from Massachusetts who will be playing this Sunday at Portland’s One Longfellow Square.

Kotzschmar Memorial Organ

The numbers are amazing: 6,618 pipes, 50 tons and 100 miles of electrical wiring. Those are the outsized facts of Portland’s greatest musical treasure, the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ, which was built 102 years ago and installed in Portland City Hall.

The huge instrument was donated in 1912 by publishing magnate Cyrus Curtis, who had grown up in the city, to honor the memory of Hermann Kotzschmar, a German musician who emigrated to Portland in the middle of the 1800s and was a hub of Maine’s cultural life for half a century.

Two years ago, immediately following the Kotzschmar’s 100th anniversary celebration, the instrument was dismantled and shipped to Connecticut for a total refurbishing and rebuilding. This past August the Kotzschmar was reassembled and it’s now ready to resume its former centerpiece role.

Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, the private nonprofit support group that maintains and operates the instrument, has scheduled its first concert of the 2014-2015 season this Saturday. The chief performer will be Ray Cornils, a University of Southern Maine music professor and director of several choirs at the First Parish Church in Brunswick. He is Portland’s official municipal organist. Another distinguished performer will be Peter Richard Conte, who plays the gigantic Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia.

The Kotzschmar Festival Brass (comprising mostly Portland Symphony players) will join Cornils and Conte. A new work for organ and brass, specially commissioned for this occasion from composer Carson Coorman, will be premiered.

Catch the first return performance of the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

A slew of guest artists will join maestro Robert Moody and the Portland Symphony Orchestra for the opening concert of the 90th season. Two of them are keyboard virtuosos from Maine: pianist Henry Kramer and organist Ray Cornils.

Kramer, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth, is a Juilliard graduate who is currently studying for his doctorate at Yale. He’ll be featured in Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra.” The work’s vocal horsepower will be provided by the Choral Art Society, under the director of Robert Russell, longtime professor of music at the University of Southern Maine.

The biggest item on the program will be Leos Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass,” a celebration of the composer’s Slavonic heritage. This work, which incorporates many elements of the traditional Catholic Mass, will also feature the Choral Art Society plus four professional solo singers drawn from the world of opera. The Kotzschmar Memorial Organ will make a major appearance in this piece with Ray Cornils at the keyboard.

Portland Symphony Orchestra opens its 90th season at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘Avenue Q’

Ten years ago, “Avenue Q,” an offbeat Broadway musical that freely intermixes puppets and live actors, copped the coveted “triple crown” of the Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Book (by Jeff Whitty) and Best Score (by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx). After a six-year run on Broadway, several national tours and numerous professional productions in regional theaters, the performing rights to “Avenue Q” were recently released to community companies.

The first such group in Maine to land the rights is Lyric Music Theater, and last weekend the venerable South Portland troupe opened its 62nd season with a fine production.

“Avenue Q” is a very adult parable of coming of age in modern, urban America. Using characters and imagery that’s clearly based on the “Sesame Street” television show, “Avenue Q” follows the trials and tribulations of a recent college graduate who is searching for a purpose in life.

Lyric Music Theater has a fine cast of 11 actors. Eight carry puppets, while three play real people parts. Tops is Joel Crowley, as Princeton, the perplexed college graduate, and Molly Harmon, as Kate Monster, the chief romantic interest in the show.

The comic gems of Lyric’s production are Doni Tamblyn, who plays Bad Idea Bear No. 2, and Ashley Christie, who plays Lucy the Slut. Their enthusiasm for these wonderful comic roles is contagious and fills the auditorium with laughs.

Kudos are also earned by Karen Trask, who built the 10 puppets used in the show.

It should be noted that although “Sesame Street” provides inspiration for this show, “Avenue Q” is decidedly unsuitable for children.

Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer St. in South Portland, presents “Avenue Q” through Oct. 4 with 8 p.m. performances Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 799-1421.

Lori McKenna

Depending on one’s point of view, Lori McKenna has three different personas. For her neighbors in south suburban Boston, McKenna is a housewife with five children. In Nashville, she’s known as a prolific songwriter who has penned a slew of Top 40 hits for country artists such as Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Little Big Town.

In cafes and small music rooms across America, McKenna is known as a singer-songwriter who has a knack for telling stories and capturing the essence of characters and situations.

Her recording career has spanned 15 years and has produced eight albums. The most recent is “Numbered Doors,” an all-acoustic compilation of 10 songs which is being released this month on the UMPG Nashville label.

This week she’s holding a series of three album release concerts in New England. One of them is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28 at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Sidebar Elements

“Avenue Q” is a 2003 Broadway musical that uses both live actors and hand-held puppets. A fine community production of “Avenue Q” is currently running at Lyric Music Theater in South Portland.