Local organist finds his heart in Ecuador
By EMILY PARKHURST  |  June 11, 2008

Ray Cornils with the Kotzschmar Festival Brass | 7:30 pm June 17 | at Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St, Portland | $12 suggested donation; under 21 free
From January to April, Portland’s municipal organist Ray Cornils was in Ecuador performing, lobbying for the repair of several church organs, and generally, as he puts it, “getting back in touch with reality.”

Cornils has been to Ecuador before, but this time he explored the area in greater depth, and bought a condo in the city of Quito with thoughts of retirement. Having been the music director at the First Parish Church in Brunswick for 21 years, Cornils has earned himself several sabbaticals, which have allowed him to travel and perform on organs from Southern France to San Francisco. It should come as no surprise that next year when his church choir goes on tour, they will spend some time in Ecuador doing benefit concerts for a homeless shelter in Quito.

“There are only 13 workable pipe organs in the entire country,” Cornils says. “Three of them are in Quito.”

This makes performing and practicing a challenge. Since several of the organs are powered by hand-pumps, Cornils needs someone to work the pump while he is playing, a job that can be hard work in the sweltering heat. Despite the challenges, he has found the response to his performances incredibly positive.

“The people are open and gracious. After a concert there will be a line of 50 people wanting pictures with you. They’re just all very interested,” relates Cornils.

Celebrity status is not the only reason Cornils takes his show on the road. During Holy Week, the week before Easter, there is a festival in Quito. Sponsored by the government, there are between 40 and 50 concerts that week, all free and open to the public and nearly all recorded and broadcast on television. Performers from all over the world come to Quito to share their music.

“There was this incredible string quartet from Spain, a number of other organists, some great choral concerts, and quite a few native Andean performances. The shows were in parks, churches, plazas. The music was just everywhere,” says Cornils.

Part of Cornils’s vision in performing in Ecuador is to draw attention to the often much-needed repair work on the country’s aged and ailing organs.

“In Cuenca there is an 18th-century pipe organ that has been vandalized. It’s in such bad shape. The pipes have been nearly crushed. Everything in the church as been restored except for the organ. I’m hoping they’ll be able to find the funding to repair it.”

With a workforce of primarily manual laborers in a country whose growth can be attributed, at least in part, to the narcotics trade with Colombia, finding funding to repair old pipe organs can be difficult.

“It’s a slower pace of life down there,” explains Cornils. “If you get two things accomplished in a day, that’s great.”

As frustrating as that might be for many, Cornils seems not to be bothered by the idea of a challenge. He stayed in Ecuador through one of their worst rainy seasons in years. More than a million people lost their homes, roads were washed out, crops destroyed. Despite that, he intends to return soon.

“I just come back feeling more human,” says Cornils.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached

  Topics: Music Features , Ray Cornils
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