Wineke: What makes an organ entertainment?

Christopher Houlihan

MADISON, Wis. — Attending this week’s Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Overture organ concert taught me something unique about classical music as entertainment.

Guest artist Christopher Houlihan played brilliantly. He is the Distinguished Chair of Chapel Music at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and is one of the most prominent organists in the world.

The audience was appreciative — even enthusiastic — in response and yet, the concert didn’t have the family ambiance we generally associate with the Overture organ series.

It took me a while, but I think I figured out why.

Most organists are invisible. They tend to play in churches where they are either tucked away in balconies or hidden behind massive counsels.

The Overture Concert Organ in Madison is a unique instrument. No one ever sees it. Those pipes at the back of the auditorium stage are just a façade The counsel is wheeled out to the middle of the stage for a concert – and the musician plays with his back to the audience.

No other performer does that. Violinists, singers, trumpeters, and even tuba players, face the audience. So, if you’re at a concert, you are interacting with both the music and the performer.

That warm, family ambiance we associate with local organ concerts isn’t so much the result of musical virtuosity as it is of the showmanship of MSO organist Greg Zelek.

Zelek is a great musician. But he is also an entertainer. He jokes around with the audience, introduces the financial sponsors of the evening performance, introduces his mother, who lives in Miami but is here frequently, talks about his fiancé, and pokes fun at himself.

So, when he plays, even though his back is to the audience, his spirit isn’t.

To me, at least, that’s an interesting distinction.

Houlihan, who was a friend of Zelek’s at Julliard (I’m pretty sure that every classical musician of note in the last 20 years was a friend of Zelek’s at Julliard), is a great musician, but he is not by nature an entertainer. He is a professor.

Professional organists, as I suggested earlier, are not trained to be entertainers because the venue of their instruments forces them to be heard but not seen.

The brilliance of the Overture Concert Organ — and, I would guess, of Pleasant Frautschi who paid for it — is that the musician is both seen and heard.