From the Municipal Organist — Winter 2018

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I am intrigued by paradoxes. While the organ is often associated with lugubriously slow hymns in church and with desperately serious music harkening back to generations past, it has also stood for centuries as one of the most advanced mechanical devices known to man. Even in the early 20th century, few machines surpassed the complexities of the pipe organ. The Kotzschmar organ was dedicated in 1912 and was no exception to this rule. The Mighty Kotzschmar contained electrical and mechanical features that were up to the most recent advances in industry, allowing a single musician to command an entire symphony orchestra, a marching band, or a single tone, all at the touch of a button (well, more accurately, at the press of a key).

Embracing these paradoxes is key to our survival and growth as an organization. Many people will have their assumptions about pipe organ music questioned, and that is a good thing! Many of us will have seen the HSBC bank advertisements on the jet bridges at airports around the world (as a travelling musician I consider myself an expert on these sightings!) They have a successful ad campaign based on what things mean in different cultures, questioning our associations. One example featured an image with a strong red cast. One caption that read “Danger” and another said “Good luck”. We can choose to identify the pipe organ with centuries past, with unexciting performances, and with dwindling audiences. Or we can see ourselves as trustees of an edgy, appealing, countercultural phenomenon, a “must-see” Portland experience with opportunities for tremendous growth and the power to transform lives.

There are two particular areas that we can achieve this reinvention. One is through collaborations. A number of weeks ago I had the great fortune to meet with the leaders of Portland’s main artistic and cultural organizations. It solidified my conviction that we have a great deal to gain by cross-pollinating our respective assets in a city that is rich with art, music, dance, drama, and so much more.

The second is through technology. Just as the incorporation of the latest technological developments has been integral to the Kotzschmar’s history, so too must we fully embrace the many possibilities of modern technology in our performances today. This success has already been proven through the use of the big screen projection of the organ console, giving the audience an up-close-and-personal view of the organist and the keyboard (and the pedalboard). Live streaming performances would allow us to widen our field of view well beyond the confines of Merrill Auditorium, increasing our presence on the global stage.

The last two concerts that I performed (in August and October) had very good attendance, proof that our increased marketing efforts are bearing fruit. These things take time, resources, and immense energy. We’ve a long way to go before Merrill is packed, but we are well on our way. Looking ahead to the remainder of the season, we have a fabulous roster of performers for the Christmas With Kennerley concert in December, a more traditional, yet equally engaging, concert of music for the Bach Birthday Bash in March, and an eclectic mix of styles for the summer concert series. I can’t wait to see what the future holds, and look forward to seeing you at a future performance!

With my very best wishes,

—James Kennerley

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