James Kennerley’s motto is go big and go bold. He’ll do both on Tuesday, Dec. 18 when he plays his first Christmas concert as Portland’s municipal organist, performing on the hallowed Kotzschmar Organ at Merrill Auditorium.
He’ll be dressed in his brightest holiday bling, his feet donned in colorful socks, which has become a fashion statement of the enthusiastic musician. The organ’s sponsoring organization, the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, is asking people to bring new socks of all sizes and colors to the concert for donation to Preble Street.
“Christmas is my favorite time of year,” said Kennerley. “Christmas equals music. It also equals gifts and new stuff, but music was and is the main element that I enjoy the most about Christmas.”
Kennerley, who was born in England, lives in New York and popped up to Portland last week for a quick rehearsal at Merrill before the auditorium filled up with other holiday shows and the organ became unavailable. He’s been thinking about “Christmas with Kennerley” since he was appointed municipal organist a year ago, knowing well it was the most popular organ concert of the year and an opportunity for him to show the audience some of his personality.
Thus, there will be bling – and musical explorations of familiar seasonal classics and a first take on his new transcription of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” arranged to take advantage of the orchestral range and precision of the organ to represent “all the famous parts. There are a lot of options,” he said, his eyes nearly twinkling. “It’s much more fun and lot more challenging.”
To demystify the process, Kennerley has arranged for cameras overhead and to the sides of the organ console. His handiwork will be projected on a video screen so people can see how he does it. He doesn’t want them to think there’s any sleight of hand. “I don’t think people can connect with what I do if they don’t understand it,” he said. “It’s almost like someone is tricking you. I want them to see I’m not tricking them.”
The ChoralArt Singers, soprano and Maine native Ashley Emerson, the Parish Ringers hand bell choir and the Kotzschmar Festival Brass & Percussion brass ensemble will join Kennerley.
Emerson (“our rock-star soloist,” he said) will sing Kennerley’s arrangement of “O Holy Night,” with a verse in French and a verse in English and the first verse of “Silent Night,” including a sing-along. The ChoralArt Singers will perform Christmas carols old and new and give the first performance of Kennerley’s new “Carol of the Bells.” He’ll also perform Anthony DiLorenzo’s ” ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas,” a musical setting with narration by Emerson.
He’ll begin the second half of the program with an improvisation of seasonal medleys, based on a vote of the audience. “We’re going to do carols by request,” he said. “I’ll make something up as we go. It will be a Christmas surprise. Anything can happen, but I know it will be fun.”
He’ll pull out all the stops to make sure that it is.