PLAYING AND PRESERVING (Astral Artists, Play on Philly, Partners for Sacred Spaces): Beautiful music at St. Mary’s, Hamilton Village

Greg Zelek congratulates the POP cellists after the concert. Photo by Margaret Darby.

St. Mary’s, Hamilton Village, was abuzz with activity as the young cellists quickly swallowed their pizzas and snacks while they waited to perform. The cello ensemble, conducted by cellist and Play on Philly teaching artist, Victoria de la Cruz, was attentive and focused as they whispered to each other. They exuded both confidence and excitement.  

Parents, siblings, and concertgoers soon filled the church as people milled around the experience stations adorned by posters, organ pipes, organist shoes, and two iPod’s with videos of organist Greg Zelek playing and speaking about historic organs.

Zelek, a consummate artist, explained to the audience that organs are unique, each one with its eccentricities and characteristics – making it a challenge for visiting organists to assess their sound, potential, and plan registration which will work best with each instrument.  Zelek has the ability to make the 2-manual Aeolian-Skinner Opus 963 organ, installed in 1937, overcome both its venerability and vulnerability in a beautiful performance of carefully selected music.

Experience stations display organ shoes and an iPAD with organ demonstrations.

The concert began with Thomas Mesa’s performance of the Prelude from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008. He sat in a sweet spot for resonance on the right side of the sanctuary. His bowing was so smooth that it was almost undetectable. He played from memory, allowing him to listen and place each note where he wanted it while exploiting the very resonant room. His double and triple stops were astonishingly in tune.  

As he finished, after not more than a beat, Greg Zelek began an amazing rendition of the Bach Fugue in D minor, BWV 1008 which dovetailed the cello suite as if it were a second movement. Zelek’s hands and feet were projected on a large screen which gave the audience a bird’s eye view of his performance. His feet were almost as busy as his fingers as he played the multiple fugue voices while operating the swell pedals and quickly changing registration to get a multiplicity of sounds from the historic organ. 

Then, the two artists performed an arrangement of two pieces originally written for piano and cello. Greg Zelek arranged the Debussy Beau Soir for organ – and the registration was impressive. The Beethoven Seven Variations in E flat Major (WoO 46) on a theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute was a knockout. I had just heard a stellar performance of the piece by a cellist and pianist, yet the organ registrations which Mr. Zelek played created an orchestral effect that was delightful and unexpected. There were oboes, flutes, strings, and other orchestral effects – demonstrating the incredible potential of the historic Aeolian Skinner. 

Zelek then played a Fantasia for organ by John Weaver – a fairly modern composition that started out sounding like Kabelevsky. It had many sustained single notes held while the artist’s other fingers played rapid phrases of other notes. Mr. Zelek seemed able to play trills and mordents with all of his fingers. The piece with a rollicking toccata section – requiring his feet to dance almost faster than the eye could follow.

The highlight of the performance was when the Play on Philly cellists and their conductor, Victoria de la Cruz, took the stage along with Thomas Mesa.  From the traditional Hebrew folk song, which included an impressive solo by one of the student cellists to the delightful Danza Lucumi by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona – where Mr. Zelek joined in on the organ with Mr. Mesa as soloist— the students played with excellent intonation and musicality – proving that not only can Mr. Mesa play incredibly well, but that his four workshops with the cellists brought out the best of their musical talent.

The final concert in the series will also feature organist Greg Zelek and cellist Thomas Mesa as well as mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams who will perform with the Play on Philly Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, December 21, 2019 at 2 pm.  The family friendly concerts are free and the experience stations will be accessible one half hour before the concert.

[The second concert of the three-concert series was at St. Mary’s, Hamilton Village, 3916 Locust Walk, on November 22, 2019, at 6 p.m. The third concert will be at St. Mary’s, Hamilton Village at 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 21, 2019]

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