Ray Cornils and the Portland Symphony Orchestra

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Ray Cornils 12 Highlights from his work in Maine

Ray Cornils and the Portland Symphony Orchestra

Outside of its sacred origins, the pipe organ has come to serve many functions for secular music. One in particular was born out of economics. Before audio recordings existed, the only way one could hear the great Classical and Romantic orchestral works was to attend a concert – a not-so-cheap concert. To offer a more affordable option in early 20th century America, municipalities placed organs in public auditoriums, instruments which incorporated pipes that would emulate the sounds of orchestral instruments. This gave venues the ability to present symphonic pieces performed by a single musician. Portland City Hall would become a venue to house such an organ, the Kotzschmar.

In 1990, when Ray Cornils was first appointed to the position of Municipal Organist, the City of Portland was one of only a handful of cities that possessed an organ in a performance venue. Throughout the country, most organs were still found only in churches, which of course had limitations on performances due to both logistics and taste – it was rare for places of worship to hold secular concerts.

This gave cities like Portland opportunities to showcase pieces for orchestra and pipe organ that were logistically impossible for most concert halls in the U.S. So naturally, the Portland Symphony Orchestra would pair with Cornils and the Kotzschmar Organ on numerous occasions to give life to these massively sonorous works. During his tenure, Cornils collaborated with three PSO directors – Toshi Shimada, Bruce Hangen, and Robert Moody – three guest conductors – Robert Shaw, Donald Neuen, and Robert Russell – and has performed pieces for organ and orchestra composed by Albinoni, Anderson, Bach, Barber, Bartók, Brahms, Elgar, Gigout, Handel, Holst, Janáček, Jongen, Mascagni, Mendelssohn, Poulenc, Respighi, Saint Saëns, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Vaughan Wiiliams.

Cornils contributes a maturing of his musicianship to these PSO collaborations. He states, “The opportunities I’ve had performing with my extremely talented colleagues in the PSO have profoundly shaped my way of making music. I will be forever grateful for these opportunities, ones enjoyed by very few organists.”