Monroe, NC-born organist Carlo Curley gave a recital yesterday evening on the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ (Austin, Op. 323), dedicated in 1912, located in the Merrill Auditorium in the City Hall here. This is one of the few remaining fully operational municipal organs, one of only two in the nation with official municipal organists; the other is in San Diego, CA. Finsterwalde, Germany-born Hermann Kotzschmar was the first important musical figure, musician, music educator, conductor, composer, and founder of several musical organizations, in this city, having been recruited here in 1849 by music-loving Cyrus Libby Curtis; he worked here for nearly 60 years. So liked and respected was he by Curtis that the latter named his firstborn son Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis (1850-1933). This likewise music-loving Cyrus made his fortune in Philadelphia, PA, with the Curtis Publishing Company, publisher of such highly successful periodicals as The Ladies Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and Country Gentleman. He in turn gave this instrument, built by the Hartford, CT, Austin Organ Company (which is still building organs, and which made the present console in 2000) to his hometown when the City Hall was rebuilt after a 1908 fire. When it was built, it was the fourth largest organ in the world. A bust of Kotzschmar is housed in a niche below the central tower of mostly decorative tall flue pipes in the façade.

Time was, before the advent of radio, recordings, and television, rock concerts and gigantic sports stadiums, when organ recitals in public venues other than churches were an important form of entertainment. Many concert halls featured an organ as the stage backdrop and John Wanamaker even had one (also still operational) installed in his Philadelphia department store. During its first year, the weekly, and at certain times daily, recitals on this now 6862 (some ranks were added in 1927, 2000, and 2003 to its original 6813)-pipe instrument drew a total of 225,000 listeners! Though the upper balcony was closed, this recital drew a sizeable audience to the nearly 2000-seat (in 1912, it seated nearly 3000) hall, including one member who had traveled from Philadelphia and Marilyn Austin, descendant of the builder, who traveled from Hartford, as well as this writer who came from Williamsburg, MA.

Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, the non-profit founded in 1981 to ensure the maintenance of the instrument when the city of Portland eliminated funding from its budget in 1980 (some funds have since been restored), now sponsors the summer series of nearly weekly Tuesday evening recitals; this was the sixth (five remain) of this 95th season.

In their heyday, organ recitals were opportunities for musicians to display their talents, not only as keyboard artists playing the instrument’s voluminous repertoire but also as arrangers of music written for other instruments, including the human voice, or combinations thereof, up to full-size orchestras. These arrangements were often calculated to dazzle with special effects. This recital, played entirely from memory, was most definitely in that century-old tradition. It opened with Curley’s arrangement of the Largo from Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9, Op. 95, which differs significantly from the “Going Home” hymn derived from it and here included some chords that might well have startled the composer. This was followed by the organist’s arrangement of Bach’s Sinfonia in D major, S.29/1, from the Cantata No. 29, Wir danken dir Gott, which translated very nicely and effectively and was a delight to hear. His arrangement of Handel’s Largo from Xerses, “Ombra mai fu,” sensitive to the fact that this is a sung aria, was likewise attractive.

Two works composed for organ followed: John Stanley’s Voluntary in F major, which used a marvelous echo effect, and Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, S.564, which demonstrated the ability of this enormous, essentially late-Romantic instrument to render Baroque music as well as would an authentic Baroque one. The first portion of the program concluded with two more Curley arrangements of music by Wagner: the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, again as expressive as would be the voice, and the “Entry of the Nobles, Grand March” from Act II of Tannhaüser, a piece allowing him to “pull out all the stops.” There were no printed program notes, but Curley paused between the Stanley Voluntary and the Bach Sinfonia to talk about the works and make some general comments about the organ itself, demonstrating some of his statements. He had also given a pre-concert talk, which was conducted somewhat as an interview by the current municipal organist, Ray Cornils. In both, Curley stressed the power of the instrument and the infinite variety of sounds that it can produce; he said that its greatest asset and pleasure, its “true magic,” is its handling of the softest of those sounds, which he characterized as “ethereal.” He advised the audience members to fasten their seatbelts for the Grand March, on the other hand.

Another Curley arrangement, of the song “It’s all in the game,” and entitled “An American Surprise,” followed the pause. Curley spoke of his teacher (Sir George Thalben-Ball) emphasizing in his pedagogy that all music should keep singers in mind, because they have the original instrument. This was a work in the theatre-organ style, but not saccharine sweet, and it did just that. Marcel Dupré’s Prelude and Fugue in g minor, Op. 7/3, another work where all the power was at times unleashed, followed. His mentor’s arrangement of Jan Ladislav Dussek’s Andante in F major followed this, giving great play to the flute pipes, although the work was most likely composed for piano, since Dussek was a concert pianist. An arrangement by Malcolm Archer of the traditional Irish tune “Londonderry Air” was up next, and the recital concluded with contemporary Swedish composer Stefan Lindblad’s (b.1958) Toccata on an American Theme, using melodies from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Curley’s other teacher was Virgil Fox, and like him, Curley is a bit of a showman, somewhat impish, conducting himself at times and entertaining his listeners while playing for them. His informal, very personable comments often amuse: he encouraged the audience to watch his “size 12s smoking on the pedalboard” for one work. He was obviously thoroughly enjoying exploiting the broad spectrum of possibilities that this magnificent instrument offers and visually sharing that enjoyment. His musicianship is nonetheless impeccable, and his clowning is not exaggerated, nor does it distract from the music’s beauty and effect. An opportunity to hear him in performance should not be missed. An opportunity to hear this instrument is worth making.

*This is the first of what may become a series of articles on music in Portland, Maine, given the fact the WSSO Music Director Robert Moody has recently been named MD of the Portland Symphony Orchestra.