WOOLWICH – It’s perfectly appropriate that Ray Cornils will be at the bench when Portland celebrates the return of the mighty Kotzschmar Organ to Merrill Auditorium on Saturday night.

Cornils, who turned 59 Friday, is one of only two municipal organists in the country, and has served in that capacity in Portland since 1990, as long as any other organist.

During his 24-year tenure, he has championed the importance of the 102-year-old pipe organ in the city’s cultural history, and served as its ambassador. Saturday’s concert, which is sold out, celebrates the successful two-year, $2.6 million effort to rebuild and restore the organ to its original glory.

Portland businessman Cyrus Curtis paid for the organ, which was dedicated Aug. 22, 1912. He named it in honor of his hometown music teacher, Hermann Kotzschmar, whom Curtis praised for his “kindly spirit” and “high ideals.”

A century later, Cornils is seen by many as a modern-day Kotzschmar.

For Cornils, music is not just an expression of the soul and an avenue to explore emotions, but a means to connect people with their community.

The job of municipal organist is a part-time position, paid for by the nonprofit Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, which formed in 1980 to oversee and manage the organ.

Cornils’ primary job is playing the organ and programming concerts that feature the instrument. He is best known for his annual “Christmas with Cornils” concert, which traditionally has closed the busy holiday season at Merrill. He is the organ’s public face and the performer most closely associated with the instrument.

Cornils called Saturday’s gala a “big moment” for the city’s cultural life. “We have a lot to be proud of. It’s affirmation that the arts do matter.”

It also reinforces the notion that, as Curtis said when the organ was dedicated in 1912, music helps us appreciate “that undefinable something that is an expression of the soul.”

When Cornils plays, one can see that phenomenon at work. He is fluid and graceful, and serious about his work at the keyboard but always making room for a smile. More than playing music, Cornils channels it.

In addition to his part-time work in Portland, Cornils works full time as minister of music at First Parish Church in Brunswick, where he leads six choirs. He has ministered at First Parish longer than any current staff member, said senior minister Mary Baard.

His dedication speaks to two of his defining characteristics, she said: Tenacity and patience.

Those traits helped the Brunswick church build its music ministry and put the Portland organ on the road to redemption. When the Kotzschmar board learned of the poor condition of the organ, Cornils led the effort to bring attention to the instrument and rally for its support, said David Wallace, an organ builder and curator of the Kotzschmar.

“It certainly has been squarely on Ray’s shoulders and his leadership that the instrument has reclaimed its prominence in the city’s music community,” said Wallace, who has been associated with the Kotzschmar for 57 years, having attended his first concert at age 7. “Thirty years ago, if you asked an average person on the street about the Kotzschmar, they would just look at you and say, ‘The what?’ Today, if you asked the same question, you would get a more positive answer by a long shot.”

Russ Burleigh, a founding member of the Friends group, said Cornils is respected far beyond Maine. “He is well known in the organ community around the country and the world,” Burleigh said.

Cornils grew up in Sterling, Ill. He didn’t come from a musical family — his father was an accountant and his mother taught math. But he and his two sisters were musical, and his parents encouraged them.

It helped that the local school superintendent supported music and hired a grade-school principal with a background in music. Cornils began on the piano at age 7 and grew up “breathing the air of music,” he said. “I knew that music was what I wanted to do. That was clear.”

He appreciated the feeling that music gave him. It made him feel alive, creative and nimble. He expressed himself musically more easily than he could otherwise.

He studied organ performance at Oberlin College in Ohio and earned a master’s from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. From Boston, he came to Maine.

In 1987, Cornils bought a place near Lake St. George in Liberty with the intent of spending summers at the lake and the hope of someday living in Maine year-round.

That someday came sooner than expected. Within six months, First Parish Church in Brunswick hired Cornils as director of music, a title that was changed to minister of music in 2007 in recognition of his long-term service and expanded role.

He and his husband, David, now live in Woolwich. Their home is large enough to accommodate an organ and has a backyard big enough for a barn and two dogs.

When he arrived at First Parish, the choir program was limited. Today, he directs six choirs, including a bell choir.

“He’s made a deep commitment not only to the church, but to the wider music community in Maine to keep developing programs and connections to help people enrich their musical life, but also their faith life,” Baard said.

First Parish congregant Jane Abernethy sings in two of Cornils’ church choirs. She noted the “sense of delight, the sense of discovery” that Cornils instills in those who sing with him.

Cornils is thankful for many things — the chance to work with friends at the church, the support of the Maine music community, the chance to make a life in music. But what he appreciates most is simply the chance to play. It’s all he’s ever wanted to do.

“I get to be a 4-year-old and be in contact with that sense of joy that music gives you,” he said.

It’s that joy — and a willingness to share it — that makes him a lot like his spiritual mentor, Hermann Kotzschmar.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.