James Kennerley: Municipal Organist for the City of Portland
Hailed as “a great organist” (Bloomberg News) displaying “phenomenal technique and sheer musicality”, James Kennerley is a multifaceted musician, working as a conductor, organist, singer, and composer. He has established himself as a tireless ambassador for the organ and its music. James’ performances are known for their illustrious flair and thrilling virtuosity, demonstrating subtlety and finesse; his YouTube performances have enjoyed worldwide popularity and have received millions of views globally. Deeply committed to educating the next generation of organ fans, James served for 12 years on the NYC AGO Chapter (most recently as Dean), and now serves on the Boston AGO chapter’s Young Organist Initiative board. Recent concert engagements this season take him to Boston’s Symphony Hall, Montreal’s Maison Symphonique, Portland’s Merrill Auditorium, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, a concert tour to Rome, Florence, and Venice, and even Fenway Park!
James was appointed the Municipal Organist of Portland, Maine, in 2017. One of only two such positions in the US (the other being in San Diego), James presides over the landmark 1912/1928 Austin Kotzschmar Memorial Organ that was most recently renovated by Foley-Baker in 2012. The organ forms the centerpiece of the City Hall Auditorium (now known as Merrill Auditorium), and is featured in solo concerts, silent movie improvised soundtracks, performances with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and frequent Backstage Pipes tours and other educational events.
James’ repertoire is rich and diverse, including canonical works such as the Duruflé Suite, Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm, Florence Price’s Suite for Organ, Franck’s Troisième Chorale, Dupré’s Deuxieme Symphonie, Seth Bingham’s Roulade, Howells’ Third Rhapsody, and Elgar’s Organ Sonata. Inspired by his illustrious predecessors in Portland, as well as a stunning instrument with supreme orchestral capabilities, organ transcriptions form the backbone of James’ programs. Seamless crescendos and diminuendos can be witnessed in this performance of William Strickland’s transcription of Barber’s Adagio. James creates many of his own transcriptions, adapting them to the particular sounds of the Kotzschmar Organ. This recent version of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever demonstrates the virtues of “thumbing down” in the extreme, in addition to frequent use of the pedal divide function (and some virtuosic double-pedaling). James adapts Lemare’s well-hewn transcription of Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre in this video; and he presents a new transcription of Berlioz’ Hungarian March here.
Renowned for his improvisations, some examples of James’ extemporization on liturgical themes can be seen and heard here and here. In 2021, James improvised a symphony on Americana themes as part of an Independence Day organ concert in Portland, Maine. James is in demand as a silent movie accompanist, drawing primarily on the rich, late Romantic sound palate as inspiration for many of his live scores (though humor and quotations are never far away!). Allan Kozinn (New York Times/Wall Street Journal) noted James’ “serious skill” during his 2018 improvised score to Nosferatu: “Kennerley’s playing during the film was masterly.” Click here to watch a scene from Nosferatu.
James’ lighter side (including frequent use of the percussion and toy stops!) can be seen in these videos, featuring Strauss’ Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka, Leon Jessel’s Parade of the Tin Soldiers, Sousa’s Liberty Bell March, and Nevin’s Will-o'-the-Wisp.
Bach’s birthday is celebrated in Portland with an annual concert (the #BachBirthdayBash), during which James presents original works and transcriptions by the king of composers. The Kotzschmar organ allows for a great many differing styles of interpretations, including those cast in an historically-informed manner (including the Prelude and Fugue in Eb). Transcriptions of orchestral works allow for further exploitation of the instrument’s colors, including the Sinfonia to Cantata 29 (Wir danken Dir) in a new arrangement that accentuates the punchy trumpets of the original, classic cantata arias such as Sheep may safely graze, and an arrangement of the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria” that draws on the multiple string ranks of the Kotzschmar. James is also not afraid of “transcribing” Bach’s original works (albeit without changing any of the notes!) in a similarly orchestral manner, as shown by the performance of the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, and this of the Prelude and Fugue in E minor. Perhaps the best-suited piece for the Kotzschmar is the stunning arrangement by Max Reger of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, which invites exploration of the entire range of colors that the instrument has to offer.
Mr. Kennerley made his Carnegie Hall solo début in 2016 with the celebrated ensemble the Sejong Soloists. Performances in recent seasons include concerts at Alice Tully Hall, the Frick Collection, the Metropolitan Museum’s MetLiveArts series, and in the Lincoln Center White Light Festival. He has also given concerts at Washington National Cathedral, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, Princeton University, the Royal Albert Hall, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Trinity Wall Street and other major venues throughout the United States and Europe. He was a featured artist on recordings with the Grammy - nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street including Handel’s Messiah and Israel in Egypt, and Monteverdi Vespers, as well as a recording of Julian Wachner’s carol collection, The Snow Lay on the Ground. Mr. Kennerley was a prizewinner at the 2008 Albert Schweitzer International Organ Competition, and a semifinalist at the inaugural Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition.
Deeply committed to the art of liturgical organ music and education, James was named Director of Music at Saint Paul’s Church and Choir School in Harvard Square in 2019, presiding over the Billboard Classical chart-topping Choir of Men and Boys. The Choir School, one of only two of its kind in the country, trains young singers to make liturgical music at the highest levels. Many graduates have gone on to become leaders in the field of sacred music. A recording by the choir on the Sophia/DeMontfort label of James’ new chamber orchestration of Gabriel Fauré’s beloved Requiem was released in 2023 to great acclaim. The release also features some of James’ original compositions, including the a cappella Missa Sanctae Mariae Virginis, a sumptuous yet practical setting of the Mass Ordinary based on Marian plainsong melodies. The recording may be previewed and purchased here, and the sheet music is also available here.
A native of the United Kingdom, he has held positions at Christ Church, Greenwich, CT, Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, New York City and the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Times Square. He is also part of a team of musicians at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, one of the foremost centers of Jewish Music and Liturgy in the world. A recognized specialist in the realm of early music, Mr. Kennerley has collaborated with William Christie, Richard Egarr, Nicholas McGegan, Christopher Hogwood, Monica Huggett, Julian Wachner, Gary Thor Wedow, and has given solo harpsichord concerts throughout the United States A longtime member of NYC-based early music ensemble, Sonnambula, Mr. Kennerley has recorded virtuosic works for harpsichord by sixteenth-century English composer John Bull, released on Centaur Records.
Mr. Kennerley holds degrees from Cambridge University (Jesus College) and The Juilliard School. He has studied the organ with David Sanger, Thomas Trotter, and McNeil Robinson, and harpsichord with Kenneth Weiss, Peter Sykes, and Richard Egarr. He holds the prestigious Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists diploma.
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