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Concert organist creates intimate experience in grand space during holiday sing-along

Concert organist creates intimate experience in grand space during holiday sing-along

From the Fave 5: Reporter Howard Hardee picks his favorite stories of 2019 series

After holding out the deeply resonant final chord of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” Greg Zelek stepped away from the organ console and, microphone in hand, told a personal story to the audience of about 1,500 people gathered Saturday morning at Overture Center for the Arts.

While taking an Uber from the airport a few months ago, he and his girlfriend started talking about the Overture Concert Organ. The German-built, 4,000-pipe colossus known as the “Mighty Klais” is what had drawn Zelek, a Juilliard School graduate, to Madison nearly three years ago.

“At the end of our trip, the Uber driver turned around and said, ‘If you guys are interested in the organ, you have to hear this guy Greg Zelek,’’’ he said, pausing for laughter. “I have never tipped bigger.”

Adding a humorous personal touch to the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Free Community Carol Sing was very much intentional on Zelek’s part. As the symphony’s principal organist and curator of the Overture Concert Organ series, he’s found that leading hundreds of people through classic Christmas carols like “Silent Night, Holy Night” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” calls for creating a sense of intimacy. Which is easier said than done in a grand space like Overture Center, and with his back to the audience for most of the performance.

Cracking jokes and sharing tidbits about himself between songs didn’t hurt. At one point, Zelek, 28, described a text message exchange with his mother in which she suggested removing an article of clothing, perhaps his vest, to rile up the crowd.

“I didn’t respond to the message,” he said, “but it was like, ‘You’ve been to an organ concert, right?’”

With the organ pipes cast in a soft purple light and horn-wielding angels strung from the ceiling, the space was packed with older adults wearing Santa hats and families with young children babbling between hymns.

Similar to when a rock singer lets the crowd take over for a few bars, the massive community chorus sounded pretty much on point, particularly during slow, stately carols like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Individual voices ranged from sweet and delicate to deep and bass-heavy, the vocal chord equivalent of a tuba.

Zelek was physically animated throughout the performance. His hands flew across three levels of keyboards while his feet worked the pedalboard like somebody playing Dance Dance Revolution in an arcade.

“It’s a more physical instrument than most people realize,” he said after the show.

The turnout Saturday was likely the largest ever for the annual Free Community Carol Sing, according to Peter Rogers, director of marketing for the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Though the symphony hasn’t tracked attendance figures over the years, it had never previously been necessary to open the top levels of the theater to accommodate the crowd. The organization is certain that the event drew about 100 more people than last year’s.

As someone who believes in the importance of connecting with something bigger than oneself, Zelek was ecstatic about the turnout and his role in bringing members of the community together during the holiday season.

“It’s unbelievable to play for this many people,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

From his perspective onstage, hundreds of voices following his lead and blending together was powerful, he said. But that didn’t stop him from cracking wise during the show.

“You guys sound good this year,” Zelek told the audience. “Every year is a little bit better.”

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Howard Hardee is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has written extensively about government, natural disasters and forest health in northern California.

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