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Arts and Culture

Portland's Famed Kotzschmar Organ Sings Again after $2.5 Million Restoration


This weekend marks a landmark occasion for the city of Portland's century-old Kotzschmar organ, as it returns from a lengthy and costly overhaul that supporters hope will keep it going for another 100 years. Tom Porter took a look behind the curtain.

Ray Cornils has a lot to think about when he goes to work. Sitting at Portland's Kotzschmar organ, he's confronted by six keyboards, 32 foot pedals and more than 200 buttons - or stop knobs, as they're called - each one creating a different sound.

"What makes this instrument so special is that, not only can it move in heroic means, but it also plays very, very quietly. It's almost like perfume wafting through the auditorium. It's like having an orchestra all under my fingers."

Named after Herman Kotzschmar, a German immigrant who became a leading musical performer and educator in early 20th century Portland, the organ was installed at the city auditorium in 1912, a gift from music-loving publishing magnate Cyrus Curtis. The nation's first municipal organ, it was enlarged in 1927.

This Saturday, the Kotzschmar will be center stage for a "comeback concert" at the Merrill Auditorium, having just undergone a two-year, $2.5 million renovation. Cornils - whose been Portland's municipal organist for nearly 25 years - says the improvement is evident.

"Before it was renovated, things worked, but they didn't really sing like they should," he says. "It was like a singer whose been singing too loud for too long, a little damaged and - it worked, but was it elegant? No. But now, everything works effortlessly. Listen to how clear this sound is."

"Such clarity - it sparkles, it glistens," he says as he plays.

There's much more to the Kotzschmar organ than meets the eye. The impressive display of pipes that fill the stage are almost purely for show. The real work goes on backstage, on six floors and through nearly 7,000 pipes that would stretch for more than 3.5 miles. There's also nearly 100 miles of electro-pneumatic wiring, which enables the console - where the organist sits - to open and close the valves that make the pipes speak.

The restoration job was funded partly through a city surcharge on concert tickets, and partly by the nonprofit Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, or FOKO. The group's executive director, Kathleen Grammer, offers a tour behind the facade to explain how the organ works.

"We're about to go into the universal wind system, or the wind chest of the organ, which is the lungs of the organ," she says. "And it is under a lot of air pressure to support the wind that goes through the pipes, so we're going through an airlock system and your ears will pop."

Like deep sea divers entering a de-compression chamber, we go one at a time through the cupboard-sized airlock into the wind chest. The wind chest itself occupies some 825 feet of floor space. Inside, there are banks of pipes - wooden and metal - and an array of other working parts, most of them new or refurbished.

Before the renovation, says Grammer, the wind chest was leaking air. And that's not good, "because if you think you have a full organ going and you're using the majority of the pipes, air is escaping," she says, "and if you don't keep the pressure constant, then the sound will sag."

Tom Porter: "It's like if you have bagpipes and you don't keep them inflated."

Kathleen Grammer: "Exactly." (Laughs)

For the renovation, she explains, every single part of the 50-ton Kozschmar had to be dismantled, packed, labeled and sent out of state - six tractor-trailer loads in all. A giant effort, says municipal organist Ray Cornils, but, hopefully, one that won't have to be repeated for several generations.

This weekend's concert is sold out, but he says there are several more opportunities to see and hear the Kotzschmar in the coming months. "You can't absorb the grandeur of this instrument in one sitting," he says. "I can't."

Learn more about the Kotzschmar organ.