Concert review: Portland’s new organist showed his silly side – and serious skill – in Halloween tradition

Dressed in costume, James Kennerley played along with the Dracula film ‘Nosferatu.’

In the four years I’ve attended these concerts, the accompaniments have been supplied by guest organists who include scoring silent films among their specialties. This year, James Kennerley, Portland’s new municipal organist, took on the task himself, and at the start of the evening, he was also the master of ceremonies, dressed for the occasion in a black cape with a red lining, and a “Phantom of the Opera” mask.

This time, he showed that he is in touch with his silly side, as well, and that he is game to throw himself into local traditions. He also took the opportunity to do some audience building, telling his listeners – the Halloween concerts are typically the best-attended organ concerts of the year – that they should return with their friends.

Most crucially, from a purely musical perspective, Kennerley demonstrated that reports of his skill as an improviser were accurate.

Kennerley took a different approach. Rather than treat these antique horror films as the camp classics they have become, Kennerley took “Nosferatu” seriously, on its own terms. So there were no comic references and no overt allusions to other musical works, popular or classical, apart from quoting the Dies Irae – the Gregorian chant for the dead – during a funeral scene.

That’s not to say that he did not lean on the conventions of musical language as listeners have come to understand it over the centuries. Cascading dissonances and quick running figures underscored the tension within several scenes. Glimpses of the countryside were accompanied with gentle, lilting timbres. Characters sometimes had leitmotifs that developed from the simple to the elaborate. And much of the score had a serene, hazily Gallic sound.

…Kennerley’s playing during the film was masterly.

-Allan Kozinn, Portland Press Herald, October 31, 2018

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