Portland’s new municipal organist ready to break barriers

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PORTLAND — Organ music, according to the city’s new municipal organist, “is not just for old fuddy-duddies.”

“The trick,” James Kennerley said, “is to break down the barriers that make some people think organ music is for elites or organ music is boring.”

Kennerley is Portland’s 11th municipal organist and will hold his inaugural concert on the historic Kotzschmar Organ at Merrill Auditorium in April.

He succeeds Ray Cornils, Portland’s longest-serving municipal organist.

The position of municipal organist was created in 1912, according to the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, and Portland is one of only two communities across the country that has one.

Brooke Hubner, executive director of Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, said Kennerley was hired after the friends group received 17 applications for the post. The applications came from across the country and around the world, she said this week.

Hubner said that Kennerley “stood out for several reasons. His musicianship and playing of the organ was exceptional and a joy to listen to (and) his commentary from the stage was warm and informative.”

“He (also) had a lot of great ideas to share with the committees,” she said.

For his audition, Kennerley said he played the “‘William Tell Overture” by Rossini because it is a piece that “would have been played frequently at the time the Kotzschmar was built (and) it tied into the history of the organ.”

In taking up his duties, Kennerley said, “We need to make (the Kotzschmar) accessible and enjoyable to as many people as we possibly can through imaginative concerts, education and outreach, performer collaborations and commissioning new works.”

Organ playing is “a living, breathing art form,” he added. “We have a unique opportunity in Portland to build a community focused around the magnificent Kotzschmar organ and I’m convinced that fantastic things will happen. I can’t wait to get started.”

Kennerley is originally from the UK and first came to the United States in 2006. He lives in New York City, where he serves as the director of music for Saint Ignatius of Antioch Church and as music director for the Ars Musica chorale.

He also describes himself as “a busy concert performer and composer.”

Hubner said the post of municipal organist is part-time and Kennerley’s duties include being “first and foremost an ambassador for the Kotzschmar Organ.” She said he will also serve as the artistic director for the friends group.

As the municipal organist, Kennerley is also required to plan concerts, select guest artists, give lectures, demos and tours of the organ, and participate in school education programs, among other responsibilities.

Kennerley made his first visit to Maine in the fall of 2015 and said he and his wife “absolutely fell in love with the city and the surrounding area,” which is one reason he was interested in becoming Portland’s newest municipal organist.

The rarity of the post was also a draw, he said.

“It’s (also) a unique opportunity to perform on a world-class musical instrument, truly one of the finest pipe organs in the world,” Kennerley said, “and produce concerts for a wide, appreciative audience.”

Having the organ in a municipal concert hall also “opens up all kinds of possibilities for inventive and dramatic programming,” Kennerley said.

He was first exposed to the pipe organ when he served as a chorister in the choir of Chelmsford Cathedral, which is about 45 minutes northeast of London.

His fascination with the instrument then led him to become a music scholar at Harrow, which, Kennerley said, “has a very strong tradition of organ music.” After graduating from Harrow he became an organ scholar at Jesus College at Cambridge University.

At one time, Kennerley was also an organ scholar at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. He has also earned a master’s degree from Juilliard.

What makes playing the Kotzschmar so technically difficult, he said, is that “the instrument has thousands of pipes, five keyboards and 32 pedals. There are literally thousands of possible sound combinations.”

What Kennerley said he appreciates most about the Kotzschmar is that it was “built at a time when pipe organs could literally imitate a full symphony orchestra … and this remarkable instrument has held its own for over 100 years. To hear this magnificent beast live is like nothing else.”

Kennerley said he hopes “to widen the scope of our performances, collaborating with film makers, visual artists, dancers and musicians from other traditions.”

“The possibilities are endless and we fully intend to exploit them all,” he said. “Our challenge is to break down barriers and show that a 100-year-old instrument can be fun, contemporary and life-changing.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

James Kennerley is the new municipal organist for the city of Portland. His duties include playing concerts on the historic Kotzschmar Organ at Merrill Auditorium.

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  • tt hannah

    Welcome, Mr. Kennerly! And thank you, Mr. Cornils! Portland is indeed fortunate to have the “magnificent beast” of the Kotzschmar and a community that values it.