Out & About: Portland Symphony celebrates Kotzschmar centennial

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As April morphs into May, an abundance of excellent concert choices beckons music aficionados. The biggest of these is the final program of the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s 2011-2012 season, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the mighty Kotzschmar organ. Maestro Robert Moody has picked a pair of major works that feature the King of Instruments. The concert will be presented twice, on May 6 and May 8.

The Greater Freeport Community Chorus presents a twin bill of concerts with a program that draws inspiration from two centuries of innovative American composers. Catch these in Freeport on May 5 and Yarmouth on May 6.

Two topnotch singer-songwriters are holding CD release parties on back-to-back dates at Portland’s One Longfellow Square. Kentucky-born Darrell Scott appears on May 4, while Maine native Rachel Efron holds forth on May 5.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

Maine’s cultural history is dotted with milestones, but none is greater than the epic event of 1912: A mammoth pipe organ was constructed in the newly finished Portland City Hall, the gift of publishing magnate Cyrus Curtis, who dedicated the mighty instrument to the memory of Hermann Kotzschmar, his childhood music teacher.

Kotzschmar, a native of Germany, emigrated to this country and settled in Portland in the mid-1800s, becoming Maine’s leading musical figure – teacher, church organist, choral director, impresario and performer – for more than half a century. When Portland City Hall burned in 1908, Curtis decided to help the reconstruction effort by donating a massive organ for the concert hall that was incorporated into the new building.

When installation was completed in 1912, the Kotzschmar was the world’s second largest organ, and size-wise it remains among the leaders. For the past three decades, the organ has been maintained by an independent nonprofit support group, Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ. The most recent enhancements and improvements, spearheaded by FOKO, were a new console in 2000 and additional pipes in 2003. FOKO also produces a year-round series of concerts.

The organ contains 6,857 pipes in 101 ranks in eight divisions. The longest pipe is 32 feet, while the smallest is under an inch. If laid end to end, the pipes would stretch 3.6 miles, the same distance as Portland’s Back Cove Trail. Total weight is about 50 tons, with about 100 miles of electrical wiring.

The Kotzschmar forms the visual backdrop to all Portland Symphony Orchestra concerts, but its isn’t played very often in the orchestral setting. But the organ will pipe up dramatically May 6 and 8, when the PSO will wrap up its season with a concert dedicated to the Kotzschmar centennial. Ray Cornils, who holds the title of Portland municipal organist – one of only two such positions in the U.S. – will preside at the keyboard.

The two biggest works are by European composers who were noted organists who understood the sonic horsepower of the instrument and its relationship with competing and complementary musical forces. Joseph Jongen was the leading Belgian composer of the early 20th century. His Symphonie Concertante for Organ and Orchestra was written in the 1920s and premiered in Brussels.

Jongen’s four-movement masterpiece culminates in a memorable finale, according to PSO program annotator Mark Rohr: “Here the superhuman perpetual-motion organ part is matched by the power of the orchestra and the Symphonie Concertante goes out in a blaze of glory.”

After intermission, the PSO will play the coda for 2011-2012 with Charles Camille Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony, subtitled “Organ.” Saint-Saens, who worked in Paris most of his life, was recognized as Europe’s foremost organist and one of its top composers. His Third Symphony was written in 1886.

Rohr characterizes the four movements as “fury,” “serenity,” “propulsion” and “triumph.” He adds the following commentary to the whole work: “Saint-Saens’ Third is known as a sonic spectacular. A symphony orchestra and a pipe organ are each capable of shaking a room. Together they can make a glorious racket.”

Catch the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall at 2:30 p.m. May 6 and 7:30 p.m. May 8. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Greater Freeport Community Chorus

American musical traditions, with an emphasis on ingenuity and innovation, will be the over-arching theme when the Greater Freeport Community Chorus presents its spring concert on two dates this weekend.

The GFCC numbers approximately 40 voices hailing from 22 towns under musical director Virgil Bozeman. All the pieces on the program were written by Americans, who date from the mid-1800s to the present. Stephen Foster is emblematic of old-time America, while Charles Ives and Aaron Copland represent of this country’s 20th-century classical tradition. Broadway and Hollywood are heard in the songs of Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen. Nick Page, a contemporary composer, represents a modern minimalist school.

Two performances are slated: May 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Parish Church in Freeport and May 6 at 2 p.m. at the Sacred Heart Church in Yarmouth. Call 865-3730.

Darrell Scott

Singer-songwriter Darrell Scott was born in Kentucky and lives in Nashville, where he writes for prominent artists such as Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Martina McBride. He’s also copped a couple of major awards in the past few years, including the Americana Music Award for Best Album of the Year and the Independent Music Award for Best Country Album.

As a performer, his newest CD, titled “Long Ride Home,” features an older style of country music, characterized by hard-working, imperfect heroes and flawed heroines. Expect to hear much of that album when One Longfellow Square (corner of Congress and State in Portland) presents a Darrell Scott CD release party at 8 p.m. May 4. Call 761-1757.

Rachel Efron

Singer-songwriter Rachel Efron is a Maine native who lives and performs mostly on the West Coast. She’s returning to her home town this Saturday for a CD release party.

Efron describes her work as “piano-centric arty pop.” Her third and latest CD is titled “Put Out the Stars,” and it represents an intensely personal approach to often-overlooked aspects of human psyche and experience in a compelling melodic and lyrical style.

San Francisco Examiner music critic Chris Morgan described her work: “Rachel Efron combines a light, gentle touch on the piano with the eye and voice of a poet to make the loveliest music one has heard – soft, intimate, ethereal and strikingly genuine.”

Catch Rachel Efron’s hometown CD release party at One Longfellow Square (corner of Congress and State in Portland) at 8 p.m. May 5. Call 761-1757.

Sidebar Elements

Darrell Scott is a Kentucky-born country singer-songwriter who will be holding a CD release party this Friday at One Longfellow Square in Portland.