Pulling out all the stops
By Sandy Tabachnick, Isthmus, September 14, 2022
MADISON, Wis. — The organist who plays the Overture concert organ in the soft light of Overture Hall wears special shoes so his feet move easily across 32 foot pedals. To keep the pedals clean, he doesn’t wear these shoes anywhere else. His sleeves are rolled up so his hands and arms can move freely across three keyboards. He pulls out various stops that control the sounds that emerge from the 4,040 pipes hidden in chambers high above the organ console.
The organist is 30-year-old Greg Zelek, who is in his fifth year as the principal organist for the Madison Symphony Orchestra and curator of the Overture concert organ, known affectionately as the Mighty Klais. The organ gets its nickname from the German firm Orgelbau Klais, which the MSO commissioned to build the organ through a gift from Madison philanthropist Pleasant Rowland.
When Zelek first moved to Madison from New York City in 2017, Isthmus asked if I would be interested in writing a profile of him and suggested that I hear him play first. So a few days later I took the No. 4 bus downtown, and walked to the First United Methodist Church to hear one of Zelek’s first concerts in Madison. The show was magnificent, and the crowd went wild. Afterwards, I waited in line to introduce myself on a rainy winter night. He was surprised that I had stayed.
Now, five years later, Zelek and I sit in the same MSO conference room as we did in our first interview and talk about his job, his time in Madison, and the upcoming organ season in Overture Hall.
Zelek says he’s delighted with the state of the organ program that has kept audiences engaged, cultivated an avid base of supporters, and invited top-notch musicians to Overture Hall to perform for sometimes sold-out crowds. This is good news at a time when concert venues are still struggling to get audience attendance back up to pre-pandemic levels. The League of American Orchestras’ COVID-19 Impact Survey shows a tepid audience response to in-person concerts.
So, how does the MSO’s organ program stay buoyant in these uncertain times?
Peter Rodgers, the MSO’s marketing director, credits Zelek’s ability to connect with guest performers and with the audience for the amazing success of the organ program. “Even when he’s performing on his own, solo, there’s a genuine, human character that comes through that’s very natural for him.”
Bruce Case is an organ builder, restoration artist, and technician who services the Mighty Klais. He says that Zelek’s number-one goal is to reach new audiences. “He’s always working with other artists to give people something they haven’t heard before,” he says. “I think it’s wonderful for the business, and we’re very lucky to have him.”
The MSO also gives Zelek the freedom to choose guest artists for the organ seasons, and he confers the freedom to the artists. “I’m fortunate that the organization gives me that freedom,” he says. “And because I know the quality of their work, I let artists choose what they will perform.” This is unusual since it’s customary for the curator of the organ program to choose. But Zelek’s approach welcomes unique combinations of instruments and invigorating contrasts in the repertoire.
This season there will be an unusual pairing with organ and cello, a work for organ and narrator, and some bossa nova, jazz, and arrangements of classical works. All of the performers are under 40, and a few composers are under 30.
But the youngest kid on the block is the Mighty Klais, an 18-year-old behemoth that will be rolled forward to the stage in its moveable chamber on 16 steel wheels and a set of tracks. The whole apparatus weighs 174 tons. “It’s actually the largest moving stage structure in the world,” says Case, who will spend about six hours tuning the reed pipes so the organ is at its best for the show.
The season opens on Sept. 27 with Zelek in a solo performance of works from Bach fugues to the U.S. premiere of “Toccata” by young German composer Paul Fey. “Toccata” was dedicated to Zelek and will allow him to show off his impressive virtuosic skills. “It’s loud; it’s exciting,” says Zelek. “It will get the dust out of the pipes.”
Other works on the program include Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” John Weaver’s Fantasia for Organ, and Florence Price’s “Adoration.” Since this year is French composer César Franck’s 200th birthday, the show ends with his monumental Grande Pièce Symphonique. “It’s a masterpiece,” says Zelek. “A giant symphony written for solo organ.”
Many of the selections on this program will appear on Zelek’s first organ CD, recorded in Overture Hall, which will be available for purchase at the concert. “I was just listening today because I’m going back through takes, and the whole CD covers a wide range of repertoire,” he says. “It includes music that has rarely been recorded, like Florence Price’s Suite for Organ, which is fantastic.” Zelek is proud that the recording showcases the entire range of the organ in just one hour.
Zelek and Christopher Houlihan, the featured organist on October 25, go back a ways. “Chris was in the last year of his master’s when I started at Juilliard,” says Zelek. “He’s been performing for many, many years, and he’s one of the world’s top organ performers.
Houlihan will play Robert Edward Smith’s An Introduction to the King of Instruments: Variations on an American Folk Tune. Houlihan described it in a text message to Zelek as “a narrated tour of the organ with variations based on an American folk tune. A nice piece and approachable.” Zelek will narrate.
On either side of the narrated tour are two classics: Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor and Franz Liszt’s gargantuan Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” (Come to us, to the waves of salvation).
Alcée Chriss, first-prize winner of the prestigious Canadian International Organ Competition, will play an electrifying program on February 28, 2023. He has a background in jazz and gospel, and his selections will include Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby,” Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado,” and various arrangements of classical favorites. “Alcée is excellent at improvisation, and he finds the unique colors of the organs he performs on,” says Zelek.
Both Houlihan and Chriss will make their Overture Hall debuts this season.
Cellist Thomas Mesa, a Madison fave, will return for the final concert on April 18. He and Zelek will share the stage in a program that features Nadia Boulanger’s Trois Pièces, and Andrea Casarrubios’s Seven, a contemplative work for solo cello. Zelek says that “it’s a tribute to the essential workers during the global COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to those who lost their lives.” The piece ends with seven bell-like sounds alluding to New York’s daily 7 p.m. tribute to essential workers during the lockdown.
An exciting end to the season will be the world premiere of the Sonata in C Minor for Organ and Cello, commissioned by the MSO and written by Daniel Ficarri, an organist and string player as well as a prolific composer. “I wanted an organ sonata that showcased the strengths and unique pairing of the pipe organ and the cello,” says Zelek. “I remember looking at the first pass [of the sonata] and thinking, ‘this is perfect.’”
Ficarri says that he wrote the sonata in about seven months, between March and September 2021. It’s in the style of a classical sonata with three movements (fast-slow-fast) and contrasting moods. One of Ficarri’s inspirations for the work was Saint-Saëns’ famous Organ Symphony in C Minor. “I felt a responsibility to write with the thoughtfulness, attention to detail, and sincerity of that monumental work,” he says.
The season runs Sept. 27, 2022, to April 18, 2023, with four concerts in all. Tickets can be purchased at the MSO website, in person at the Overture Center Box Office, or by phone at 608-251-4141.
After the season, the Mighty Klais will move back into its temperature-controlled chamber behind the stage. Zelek will start mapping out organ shows for the next three years. He’ll discuss these plans with the MSO’s new executive director, Robert A. Reed. He’ll practice at home on an organ that Bruce Case built for him and work with Case to keep the Mighty Klais healthy. He’ll work with the MSO and conductor John DeMain, if they choose an organ symphony for their season. And he’ll organize events like the free Farmers’ Market Concerts and the free Community and Carol Sings. Somewhere in there, he’ll find time to have a meal with his fiancée.
A concert organist’s work is much like the organ itself, complicated, with a lot happening at once. But Zelek is happy that the audience has embraced how fortunate we are to have this organ program and this instrument.
And he gives credit to the community for accepting who he is and valuing it. “My mom always said, ‘You don’t want to be anywhere where you’re not appreciated.’ This community has really appreciated me being me, which is the greatest thing in the world.”