Introducing Portland’s 11th Municipal Organist


Date: 19 September 2017


The Tradition Lives On: James Kennerley – Portland’s 11th Municipal Organist


Portland, MEMunicipal Organist is a phrase that symbolizes a strong relationship between government and the arts – a relationship that is becoming more scarce each year. It’s a title so rare, only two cities in the U.S. have such a position: San Diego, California and our own Portland, Maine. This year, the City of Portland renews its commitment to continuing the legacy of the Municipal Organist with the appointment of James Kennerley. Mr. Kennerley will be the City’s 11th Municipal Organist, and will begin his duties on January 1, 2018, following the retirement of Ray Cornils, the longest-serving Municipal Organist since the position was created in 1912.

Mr. Kennerley comes to us by way of Essex in the United Kingdom where he fell in love with the organ as a young cathedral chorister.

“I thought the organ was the coolest thing ever,” Mr. Kennerley explains, “When I was eight I began playing the piano and wanted to transition to the organ as quickly as possible. My teacher at the time, Graham Elliott, told me I had to get to a certain level on piano before trying the organ. I began practicing constantly to get to that point. When I was 14 I was really chomping at the bit to start playing the organ, and when I finally got the chance I never looked back.”

This drive to master the organ has led Mr. Kennerley to performing at Carnegie Hall, touring across the globe, and earning millions of views from fans on YouTube. He will now fulfill another musical goal of his, performing on the Kotzschmar Organ in concert.

“The organ world is particularly intimate, even on an international level. Back in the UK, I remember reading an article about the Kotzschmar Organ when I was a kid and I thought, ‘Wow, imagine if I could play that one day.’ Over the years, I heard stories of people performing on the Kotzschmar, so it was always present in my mind. Then I saw on Facebook that the position was open, which was thrilling.”

Applications were received from all over the world and six applicants were invited to an audition. Mr. Kennerley explains how he chose his audition pieces.

“I chose the William Tell overture by Rossini because it is a piece that would have been played frequently at the time the Kotzschmar was built – it tied into the history of the organ. The Bach Prelude and Fugue in A minor is a classic piece in organ repertoire. Variations on a Nöel by Marcel Dupré is one of the most challenging works for organ – a great piece to show technical proficiency, and to explore the various colors of the instrument. I also performed a theater organ arrangement of the Brazilian standard Tico Tico that I made especially for the audition in an attempt to use literally all of the bells and whistles on offer!”

Mr. Kennerley has big shoes to fill with the retirement of Ray Cornils. Mr. Cornils was a leading figure in the musical culture of Southern Maine. His 27-year tenure as Municipal Organist reflected a deep connection to music education and appreciation. Mr. Kennerley had the following to say about how he will approach his new position.

“In the past, you didn’t have to do as much to get people to attend a concert. Classical music was part of everyday life and very much in the mainstream. But now, more and more people are listening to classical music online, (or not at all!) rather than going to see a live concert. I believe people will always need live music and there are ways to get people interested in attending a performance.”

“First, we have to have the highest levels of integrity when it comes to performing. People respond when they sense a high level of musicianship. We also have to make efforts to explain why music, and in my case organ music, is important. It’s also essential to get people into the seats of Merrill Auditorium who may have no idea what they are going to hear.”

“Organ music is not just for old fuddy duddies – it can be hip and trendy. The trick is to break down the barriers that make some people think, ‘organ music is for elites’ or ‘organ music is boring.’ We need to make it accessible and enjoyable to as many people as we possibly can through imaginative concerts, education and outreach, performer collaborations, and commissioning new works. It’s a living, breathing art form. 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!”

Though Mr. Kennerley acknowledges the challenges of the position, they are issues he plans to tackle whole heartedly to continue spreading awareness of the wonder that is the Kotzschmar Organ.


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