Series of concerts celebrates 75th annviersary of Casavant organ’s installation

LEWISTON — A distinguished line-up of world-class organists will present concerts this summer on the historic Casavant pipe organ at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of installation for that massive and remarkable instrument. A major restoration project is now in its eighth year and Scott Vaillancourt, director of music for Prince of Peace Parish, said the work is about one-third complete. The total cost of the organ restoration is estimated at $200,000.

He said such a large and complex instrument depends on a lot of electro-mechanical mechanisms, as well as carefully controlled air for its operation. The work includes renewing leather components which dry out over time.

None of the restoration work in any way diminishes the present quality of the Casavant organ’s magnificent sound nor exceptional acoustics within the Basilica, Vaillancourt said, ” You wouldn’t know the work is going on,” he said. “It’s our intent to maintain the organ’s highest standards for coming generations.”

The first concert of the summer series is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 27, and it features renowned organist Karel Paukert. He is master organist and curator emeritus of musical arts at Cleveland Museum of Art.

Paukert was born in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) in 1935 when repressive Stalinist policies allowed little access to forward-looking 20th-century music. He broke through the Iron Curtain in 1961 by obtaining permission to become principal oboist for an orchestra in Iceland. Many honors have followed as Paukert presented his eclectic repertoire, often performed from memory, ranging from obscure Czech music to the latest avant-garde experiments.

Admission for the Paukert concert is $10. Next on the schedule is a free concert Wednesday, July 3, also at 7:30 p.m. when the Basilica organ series presents Christopher Ganza, organist, and Karen Pierce, vocalist. Ganza, who grew up in Waterville, studied under Ray Cornils, Portland municipal organist.

Currently, Ganza is the director of music and organist at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Oklahoma City. Pierce has sung from Maine to New York, Australia, Italy, Austria and Asia. She is a former member of the voice faculties of Bowdoin, Bates and Colby Colleges.

Albert Melton, organist at Cathedral Church of Saint Luke, Portland, performs July 10, and Randall Mullin, a noted organist throughout the country and now a freelance musician living in southern Maine, performs July 17. Both concerts are at 12:15 p.m. and are free.

Organist Jacques Boucher and violinist Anne Robert will present a free concert at 7:30 p.m. July 22. Ray Cornils, Portland municipal organist, Portland, will play the Casavant organ at 12:15 p.m. July 24, and Julie Huang, organist and music minister at The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Va., will play at 12:15 p.m. July 31. Both performances are free.

Also scheduled are Harold Stover, organist and director of music, Woodfords Congregational Church, Portland, and Sean Fleming, Portland municipal organist, Aug.  14, both at 12:15 p.m., and Stephen Schnurr, organist and director of music, Saint Paul Catholic Church, Valparaiso, Ind. These are also free presentations.

The summer season of concerts culminates Sept. 27 with a free performance of Widor’s mass for two organs and two choirs which will feature organist Kevin Birch with the Androscoggin Chorale and members of several other choirs.

The Casavant organ, which is the largest of any pipe organ in Maine’s churches (the Kotzschmar organ at Merrill Auditorium, Portland, is the only larger one in Maine). The Casavant organ was installed at SS. Peter and Paul Church in 1938. It was built by Casavant Freres of Saint Hyacinth, Que., which was one of North America’s leading pipe organ makers.

After its dedication in Lewiston, the Casavant was used to accompany several community ensembles and served as a recital instrument for some of the world’s leading organists including the great French organist, Marcel Dupre and Dr. Charles-Marie Courboin.

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