Concert review: In debut on the Kotzschmar, Kennerley gives preview of good things to come

The city’s new municipal organist played a range of music and showed his fun side.

Like anyone taking over a new post, James Kennerley, Portland’s new municipal organist, would like to revitalize the position and make listeners in Portland as excited about the Kotzschmar organ as he is. And judging by the attendance and response to his debut recital on Wednesday evening – Merrill Auditorium was as full as I’ve seen it for an organ concert, and there were whoops of joy after several pieces – he is off to a strong start.

Kennerley, a 33-year-old Englishman with a striking resumé that includes studies at Cambridge University and the Juilliard School, and organist and choirmaster positions in London and New York, is the 11th musician to hold the job since it was established in 1912. He is young, dapper, energetic and enthusiastic (in an introductory video, he said that his recital would be a hint of what he plans to do in the job for the next three or four decades), and not incidentally, a bold, imaginative interpreter of a broad range of music, a healthy sampling of which he played at his recital…

He called his program “Overtures,” a fitting title for the start of a new job, but also a reference to the fact that four of the seven pieces he played (eight with the encore) were overtures: three from operas (Rossini’s “William Tell,” Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” and Bernstein’s “Candide”), the fourth a lightweight but amusing concert overture by the British composer-organist Alfred Hollins.

The opera overtures, apart from being familiar and audience-friendly, gave Kennerley an opportunity to show what he, and the Kotzschmar organ, with its myriad effects stops, can do.

Kennerley was at his most freewheeling at the end of the concert, when he outfitted Bernstein’s zesty “Candide” Overture with bird calls, bells, antique car horns and other effects, and in an astonishingly virtuosic encore, an arrangement of the Brazilian chôros “Tico Tico no Fubá,” which he kitted out, not only with an array of outlandish timbres, but also a handful of interpolated themes, ranging from Beethoven’s “Für Elise” to a nod to James Bond.

It looks like his tenure here will be enlightening, but also fun.

-Allan Kozinn, Portland Press Herald, April 19, 2018

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