James Kennerley: Municipal Organist for the City of Portland
He has performed for the Queen of England. Three times.
He’s been called “the greatest improviser of his generation.”
He was a prizewinner at the 2008 Albert Schweitzer International Organ Competition, and a finalist at the inaugural Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition.
And he likes to play the organ in colorful socks.
James Kennerley is unique in his passion and talent for playing the organ. He doesn’t embody anything that one might imagine an organist to be. When not playing the iconic one-hundred-year-old Kotzschmar Organ at Merrill Auditorium as the Municipal Organist for the City of Portland, Maine, or composing music and directing a choir in New York, James can be found rock-climbing, biking and taking other exhilarating risks in the great outdoors.
James has an insanely long and accomplished résumé – with the last two decades of the 34-year-old’s career dedicated to becoming one of the world’s most exceptional organists. And yet, he chooses to play in brightly colored tuxedos and flashy socks to better highlight his footwork on the organ and not have his personality dwarfed by the impressive instruments he plays.
Born in 1984 in Essex, England, James adored playing the piano as a young child, so much so that his parents had to put a lock on their piano to keep him from constantly playing it. His first experience with the organ was as a chorister of Chelmsford Cathedral. He felt as if he’d finally arrived.
As a child growing up in the U. K., James dreamed of playing the Kotzschmar and in 2017, he was unanimously voted to be the 11th Municipal Organist of the City of Portland by the search committee and the City Council, following a 27-year tenure by his immediate predecessor, Ray Cornils. James began his official duties in January 2018. The Municipal Organist position is one of the most prominent in the world; only one other city has such a position in the country – San Diego – and James takes his role very seriously. He wants to bring a new audience in to hear the magnificent Kotzschmar Organ – which is designed to replicate the sounds of an entire orchestra and has one keyboard on the foot pedals and four keyboards, as well as 225 ‘stops‘ that he pushes and pulls to make various music sounds, including harmonica, drums, cymbals and special effects. In his debut performance in April 2018, James utilized all the features of the organ, showing the crowd what is capable from the extremely complicated instrument.
In addition to being the Municipal Organist in Portland, James is also Organist and Choirmaster at Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, New York City, where he directs the professional choir and coordinates the church’s extensive concert series. He plans to commute from New York to Maine for the time being. 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.
2017 was a big year for James. He was also named Music Director of Ars Musica Chorale, an 80-voice choral society, and the New Jersey State Children’s Chorus, Ridgewood, New Jersey’s leading choir for young voices. Ars Musica Chorale was founded in 1965 and has become the area’s premiere choral group, presenting major works from the choral literature with orchestra, as well as boasting a young artist program and a commitment to the commissioning and performance of new choral works.
Now about his insanely long and accomplished résumé …
James was educated at Harrow School, the prestigious independent boarding school in London, and at Cambridge University, where he was Organ Scholar, assisting the Director of Music at Jesus College. He was then appointed Organ Scholar of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, where James was honored to play for the Royal Family on several occasions. James also holds a graduate degree in harpsichord from the Historical Performance program at 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.
In 2016, James made his Carnegie Hall solo début with the celebrated ensemble the Sejong Soloists. He has also given concerts at Washington National Cathedral, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Princeton University, the Royal Albert Hall, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and other major venues throughout the United States and Europe.
James was praised as “one of the finest improvisers of his generation” by the late John Scott (former Director of Music at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue). James is frequently in demand as a performer and educator in this regard, and improvisation is always a highlight of his versatile concert programming.
James may be known best for his organ-playing but his creativity knows no bounds. He is a prize-winning composer, specializing in music for organ and choral ensembles, and for works that incorporate historic instruments. His 2012 piece Lauda novella was featured as part of the Twelfth Night Festival at Trinity Church, Wall Street, and he was awarded first place in the Association of Anglican Musicians 2013 composition competition.
Bestowed with a beautiful tenor voice, James has performed with many groups, including the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Saint Thomas, Fifth Avenue, TENET, and the Clarion Music Society. He was a prizewinner in the 2015 New York Oratorio Society’s vocal competition held at Carnegie Hall. In December 2015 he held the world record of both playing continuo and singing the tenor solos in performances of Handel’s Messiah with Julian Wachner and the Choir and Orchestra of Trinity Church, Wall Street!
James is a longtime member of the NYC-based Renaissance ensemble, Sonnambula, and frequently performs with them at the Metropolitan Museum and other prestigious venues. He is also the keyboardist with New Vintage Baroque, a cutting-edge ensemble dedicated to the performance of early music and contemporary repertoire.
As you can see, James is a very busy – and very talented – young man.