Greg Zelek is Overture Center’s young maestro of organ

In concert with cellist Thomas Mesa on April 16
Greg Zelek is Overture Center’s young maestro of organ
Former collaborators at the Juilliard School of Music, organist Greg Zelek, left, and cellist Thomas Mesa reunite for a concert on April 16.

It wasn’t so long ago that the Klais organ, a rare gem in the musical crown of the Overture Center for the Arts, was still a rather well-kept secret in the Madison musical scene. Pleasant Rowland donated the $1 million-plus the instrument cost and its first curator was the venerable Samuel Hutchinson. Under the latter’s leadership, an annual concert series became increasingly popular, as did a free Saturday community hymn and carol sing-alongs during the holiday season.

Initially there were only three recital dates per season, with Hutchinson usually playing the organ at one of them. The reputation of the magnificent instrument grew so quickly that internationally renowned organists expressed their desire to be scheduled to play the organ. Nevertheless, as the 2016-2017 season was unfolding, there was an open date in November for a player.

Not long before then, a young Juilliard School of Music student performed at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and a member of the Friends of the Overture Concert Organ was in the audience. Hutchinson was immediately contacted and urged to book Greg Zelek, a 23-year-old Cuban-American phenom.

Zelek’s concert was set for Election Day, 2016, but the only vote that mattered to him was Hutchinson’s. The two hit it off at once, and Hutchinson was as impressed as audiences and critics had been everywhere Zelek performed. Just a few months later, the only two “municipal organist” positions in the U.S. opened up.

Those were the only positions not church-based, Zelek told Madison Magazine, and he wanted to apply for both of them. But when he contacted Hutchinson for a reference letter, Hutchinson encouraged Zelek to apply for his job, as he had just announced his retirement.

As Zelek completes his second season in the job, it’s easy to say “the rest is history.” But it is Zelek’s complete history that is compelling: His mother and grandmother arrived in Miami from Cuba in the early 1960s. Zelek exhibited musical talent before beginning his first formal piano lessons at the age of 7. While his parents were not particularly musical, Zelek’s grandfather was one of those people that can pick up any instrument for the first time and play it at once. It was he who recognized Zelek’s talent demanded first-rate instruction.

The addition of organ was serendipitous. Zelek attended a Catholic middle school in Miami, and it was during his time there that the parish built a new sanctuary with a fine organ to match. The church organist persuaded Zelek to add organ studies to his piano lessons. By the time he was in high school, Zelek knew he wanted to pursue a career playing the “king of instruments.”

There was a short list of potential schools: Oberlin, University of Southern California, Notre Dame and the Peabody Conservatory. Zelek visited them all. But Juilliard was top of the list. The name recognition was one thing, but it was the presence of professor Paul Jacobs that cemented the deal.

“Jacobs has a vision for the organ that I think it different from everybody else,” Zelek says. “He wants to find ways to take the organ out of the tiny bubble in which it currently resides, and bring it to all people who love classical music. I’m not sure that I’d be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t studied with someone who had a vision that matched what I think my strengths are.”

At Overture, Zelek is “curating” the organ program, which falls under the purview of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Next season there will again be four programs (for several seasons now, attendance at these events often surpasses 1,500), in addition to the community hymn sing-alongs and the Christmas carol event.

This past year Zelek had his own full recital and he closes the series on Tuesday, April 16, in concert with cellist Thomas Mesa.

Again, the connection is personal.

“My first year at Juilliard I was required to live in their dorms, which was a suite of rooms,” Zellek recalls. “One of them was occupied by a student a couple of years older than me, and we never crossed paths until January. When we finally met, I learned that Tommy Mesa was a cellist from Miami — and half-Cuban as well.”

Their musical connection proved as strong as their personal one. There isn’t a huge repertoire of music specifically for organ and cello. So they adapted a few pieces by Debussy, Schubert and Haydn. At the concert each will also play a solo work unaccompanied.

Zelek still marvels at the contrast between Madison and New York City.

“When I was living and studying in New York, there were hundreds of churches and cathedrals with incredible organs — and great organists would play and sometimes draw only a few hundred to hear them. Here I am in Madison, with a population a fraction of New York’s, and our Overture organ series draws a thousand or more every single time.”

Greg Hettmansberger writes about jazz, opera and classical music for