Portland’s new municipal organist wants to restore the bond between instrument and listener

James Kennerley sees himself as a civil servant, and he begins his duties Wednesday night.

“I am here to entertain the population,” he (Kennerley) said. “You must remember, the organ was built at a time when professional orchestras weren’t as good or as numerous or as available to the general public as they are today. Providing entertainment for people was the job of the organist, and that’s why I’m here.”

Beginning with his introductory concert Wednesday, which he has titled “Overtures,” Kennerley intends to reintroduce the instrument to the people of Portland who own it, and beyond. It’s one of the world’s magnificent instruments, Kennerley said, and Portland is one of only two cities in the country with a municipal organist. San Diego is the other.

People have near-limitless entertainment options these days, unlike when the organ was originally built in 1912. Concert attendance is down generally, and it’s harder than ever to entice people to come out of their homes. “Audience numbers are down universally,” he said. “Reversing that trend is the key to our survival. It’s not a question of if, but how and how much. We know we have to do something different.”

The biggest problem is getting people in the hall. Kennerley will try to reinvent the tradition of the Kotzschmar as the people’s organ, Merrill as their auditorium and Kennerley himself as working in their service. “I am your civil servant,” he said proudly. “I am the people’s organist.”

-Bob Keyes, Portland Press Herald, April 15, 2018

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Buy Tickets to Overtures: James Kennerley’s Début Performance