Election Day 2016 was a monumental day for America as well as for Samuel Hutchison — it was the day he met the young man who would go on to take his place with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
It was the only date he had available to hear the highly praised 25-year-old organist Greg Zelek play.
“I hadn’t heard him play until then,” Hutchison, former MSO principal organist and curator, said. “When he played it was apparent that he was incredible.”
In the spring, when Hutchison was considering who should replace him following his Aug. 30 retirement, he felt the pressure to have MSO connect with Zelek who was being courted by other organizations.
Now Zelek has taken over the organist and curator position and couldn’t be happier.
“I consider myself very fortunate,” he said from Minneapolis in early August where he performed for the Organ Historical Society Convention. “I’m 25 and going into a position with a lot of responsibility, but I’m excited about the challenge and nothing in life worth doing is easy. This is exactly where I want to be and I couldn’t imagine a better situation.”
Hutchison agreed that Zelek is the best person for the job and that having a young person in the position might draw younger audiences to MSO performances.
He also sees Zelek as an artist far beyond his years.
“(Zelek) has more in his brain than 100-year-old people have,” Hutchison said. “He is beyond brilliant and he’s a wonderful young man.”
When Zelek was 15 his organ career began as he became the music director and organist for the Corpus Christi Catholic Church in his hometown of Miami, Florida. He started out on the piano when he was 7 before moving up to the more complicated instrument.
The church job opportunity was incentive to play on a more serious level, Zelek said.
Zelek holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard where he is also pursuing an artist diploma.
Playing organ for a living was something that Zelek seemingly “fell into,” but embraced with open arms and discovered a knack for something especially difficult for organists — performing without sheet music.
”He plays everything from memory,” Hutchison said. “As an organist, that is a daunting task. You have all these changes and the buttons and the pedals, when I play all of that is noted in the music.”
It’s something that Zelek’s audiences note as well.
According to Zelek, at least one audience member approaches him after every performance to mention that he plays from memory.
”It isn’t an impossible feat, but it leaves a mark on audience members,” he said. “People are impressed by it and I think it allows for continued growth of the instrument and the repertoire.
”...I think people are more engaged if the organist doesn’t look up at the music. If you play from memory it’s a huge advantage. It frees me up to focus on the music instead of turning pages or looking at it. I think it also increases the attention of the audience. There is nothing more exciting than the audience not knowing if the performer will make it.”
One of the traditions created by Hutchison, inviting organists to teach master classes, is something Zelek wants to continue in his tenure with MSO.
Master classes offer the opportunity to see how musicians think about music and create their art, he said.
But in a time when the majority of classical music audiences are graying, an observation echoed by Hutchinson, it is a part of Zelek’s mission as an artist to encourage younger audiences or audiences who are otherwise turned off by classical music to engage with organ musicians.
Engaging audiences with classical music is difficult because “society doesn’t give it the importance it deserves,” Zelek said.
Hutchison also mentioned the cultural dismissal of classical music’s importance.
”...Our society doesn’t value and publicize the arts enough,” he said. “If the television newscast every other night was sports and then culture there would be a different aspect to this. We’d know artists the way we know athletes. We need to make this a common experience for an audience who only hears ‘Badgers, Packers, Badgers, Packers’ — if we could change that I think it would change our audience.”
Zelek believes, however, that humanizing the organ and classical music is a way to draw in new audiences. For people to understand that the music is not reserved for an elite few, but meant for everyone.
One way he has thought to do that is to engage with audiences himself as a performer and not just through his music.
That is part of what makes Zelek such a “winning person that once you experience him you want to know more,” Hutchinson said.
Zelek said it comes down to communicating with an audience through the instruments or taking a look at how we think about classical music.
”I think the quality has to be high and a personal touch given to each performance,” he added. “It’s not just a matter of whether people like how you play, but whether they like you. Speaking in performances is a fundamental aspect to get (audiences) to come and then come back.
If they like you, they’ll like your playing. That’s how it works.”