Greg Zelek in Recital: Volcanic, Organic, Romantic (and downright funny!)

Season opening of the organ series at Overture Hall is a thorough delight


In case you haven’t heard, 26 year-old Greg Zelek (pictured above, courtesy of Peter Rodgers), is the principal organist and curator of the Overture Center organ. He has just started his second season in the position, and Tuesday night opened the Overture Concert series in recital. The instrument he presides over is the 174 ton “Mighty Klais,” an essential jewel in the crown of Madison’s enviable art center. Despite Jerry Frautshci’s 205 million dollar gift that created the Overture Center, the idea of including an organ was nearly scrapped…until Jerry’s wife, Pleasant Rowland, chipped in with a million dollars or so to make it happen. A venue the likes of Overture Hall without a world-class organ is like an airline pilot with 20/100 vision—it just won’t fly.

Since the installation of the magnificent instrument, always heard during Madison Symphony Christmas concerts and occasionally other events, MSO executive director Richard Mackie has shepherded the concert series to the point where there is practically a waiting list for internationally renowned organists to come and share their artistry with local fans.

And the fans have turned out: for a number of years now, the typical attendance at any one of the four seasonal organ recitals numbers 1,000 or more, often exceeding 1,500. Happily for those in attendance last Tuesday, the curator (formerly the venerated Samuel Hutchinson for the years leading up to Zelek’s appointment, gets to play at least once or twice in the series.

To tell the truth, Mackie had lobbied yours truly for at least two or three years to attend one of these events; he was rightly proud of the program that had grown in stature. A year ago I did make it to one event, but not Zelek’s. I’m sure glad I put it top of the list this year.

Appraised in purely musical terms, Zelek brings all the requisite qualities; after all, he was awarded the position at the ripe young age of 24, before finishing his Artist Diploma at the Juilliard School. And although we had met him briefly on a couple of occasions and found him eminently personable, we had no idea how he could charm an audience with his repartee as well as his repertoire.

Case in point: Zelek began by relating an amusing and touching anecdote that ended with “I figure that something like this could only happen in Madison…like starting a concert with a ‘Final.’” He then promptly launched into Louis Vierne’s celebrated final movement of the Symphony No. 1, Op. 14 (as in “organ symphony”). The late Romantic Frenchmen’s work is one of the staples of the organ repertoire, and neither Zelek nor Klais disappointed. Thus we he had the volcanic.

The organic came via J. S. Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 3. Only a non-organist (I’m raising my hand) would describe the contrast in sound as “more calliope-like.” Take it to mean that the change in timbre was startling and revealing, and even if it might go without saying, we’ll state that Zelek demonstrated a far different type of musicality than in the Vierne, clarifying Bach’s deceptively simple-sounding and overlapping melodies.

The romantic was in a transcription of Elgar’s oft-arranged “Salut d’amour.” My notebook contains the pithy remark, “Syrupy without sappiness.” ‘Nuff said.

Then Zelek closed the first half with another “Final,” this the stand alone work of Cesar Franck, his Op. 21. Zelek’s programming instincts were correct, as the Franck emerged even more colorful and climactic than the opening Vierne.

To open the second half, Zelek spun a droll description of having attended his first Packers game (you know, the one where they beat the Bears a couple of weeks ago). Apparently before the game got interesting for Packers fans, a man in front of Zelek turned around and offered him the remainder of his season tickets at face value. Zelek says he countered with a swap: the Packers tickets in exchange for season tickets for the Overture Center Organ series in Madison. “I’m pretty sure he didn’t know what I was talking about,” Zelek admitted. “And he didn’t turn around to talk to me the rest of the game.”

No matter…Zelek had already endeared himself to those in attendance in Overture Hall—and turned it up a notch again with a dazzling traversal of the Organ Sonata Op. 42, No. 1 of Alexandre Guilmant. The 27-minute work flew by in what seemed half the time, and the only encore was Zelek’s own arrangement of Lecouna’s  “Danzi Lecumi.” At this rate, Zelek might have a dual career at the comedy clubs on State Street when he isn’t commanding the Mighty Klais. The good news is that we’ll hear him again, in the Madison Symphony Christmas concerts, the season-closing “Symphony of a Thousand,” officially known as Mahler’s Symphony No. 8—and in recital with cellist Thomas Mesa in April, to close the season series.

And on October 23, we can hear Paul Jacobs…aka Zelek’s teacher for eight years and chair of the Juilliard Organ department. Let’s start filling Overture Hall for these vital organ events.

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