Playing and Preserving showcases another unique collaboration, this time between cellist Thomas Mesa, organist Greg Zelek, and Play On Philly Cello Ensemble.

Playing and Preserving’s next community concert has a fitting theme for two good friends, cellist Thomas Mesa and organist Greg Zelek. The two met at Juilliard and shared rehearsal facilities during midnight hours at the famed music school.

“My close relationships and the very interesting people that I’ve had the opportunity to meet through my profession have been quite special,” Zelek reflects.

The duo is now preparing for their next Philadelphia concert called “Organ With Friends” on Friday, November 22, which is part of the Playing and Preserving initiative spearheaded by Partners for Sacred Places.

Cuban-American Artists with Similar Musical Path

Both Zelek and Mesa have a passion for classical music, yet didn’t come from musical backgrounds, nor were pushed at a young age to pursue such interests.

Mesa didn’t start until 12 years old, but he is now an award-winning Cuban-American cellist who has performed with the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as Carnegie Hall and The Supreme Court of the United States, among other notable locations. He also toured with Itzhak Perlman both nationally and internationally, and is a member of the highly sought-after St. Petersburg Piano Quartet. Mesa also was one of the featured instrumentalists on The Crossing Choir’s album called “Bonhoeffer” that was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2017.

Zelek’s parents had very little knowledge about music, especially the organ, but now he is recognized as one of the most exciting young organists in the American organ scene. He has been the Principal Organist of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Curator of the Overture Concert Organ Season for two years, and highly sought-after as both a soloist and ensemble member. He has performed with the MET Orchestra and the New World Symphony, as well as been the Music Director and Organist at the Episcopal Church of St. Matthew and St. Timothy in New York City. And like Mesa, he also has Cuban roots.

“We both had very self-directed paths toward music since our parents were not musicians and did not have the initial expectation that we would pursue this as a career. This, in turn, allowed us to learn to appreciate this art form either on our own and through our mentors during our formative years,” the two men said.

However, this is where their similarities end. Two different instruments, and two different schedule styles for Zelek and Mesa keep their friendship interesting. Zelek has never really had a strict routine, tending to practice as much as he needs to accomplish what is necessary for a program. “I’ve always appreciated this flexibility when it comes to my work,” he added.

Mesa, on the other hand, has a very structured day, recording how long he practices everything and the amount of time he devotes to the work. “This has really helped me be very disciplined and consistent,” Mesa said.

Adding to the Musical Canon

Despite their different practice styles, Mesa and Zelek are dedicated to their work, their friendship, and the fruits that their collaboration brings. In addition to their performance on Friday, November 22, for Playing and Preserving, both have commissioned a composer to write a substantial organ and cello sonata.

“Due to the limited repertoire written for the specific combination of organ and cello, we feel it is important to contribute to the canon. We hope to expose audiences to this unusual but tremendous combination of sounds,” the two men said.

This exposure will definitely be evident during the concert at St. Mary’s Hamilton Village as they work with the youth musicians of the POP Cello Ensemble, not only through the exploration and celebration of the pipe organ but how musical friendships can unleash some beautiful works of art. The concert experience will be preceded by mentoring visits between Mesa, Zelek, and the POP Cello Ensemble, which focus on building musical skills and relationships between student musicians and world-class artists, deepening that musical friendship.

Playing and Preserving welcomes people of all ages and experiences, and encourages audience participation and interaction for its community concerts, including this one on November 22.

“We think the artist needs to not only perform at the highest artistic level, but also be able to relate the music to many in the audience who might not know very much about classical music,” the duo said.

About Playing and Preserving

Embracing new and creative approaches, a groundbreaking initiative PLAYING AND PRESERVING: Saving and Activating Philadelphia’s Historic Pipe Organs to Advance Music and Community aims to generate public support for the preservation and active use of Philadelphia’s organ heritage by building relationships between congregations, artists, music lovers, organ builders, and the broader public. This exciting venture is led by Partners for Sacred Places, in collaboration with a team of interdisciplinary partners, including Astral, Play On Philly, and the Curtis Institute of Music.

All concerts are free, open to the public, and the remaining ones take place on the following dates:

Friday, November 22The Organ With Friends
Featuring cellist Thomas Mesa, organist Greg Zelek, and Play On Philly Cello Ensemble

Saturday, December 21The Organ As Celebration
Featuring mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams, cellist Thomas Mesa, organist Greg Zelek, and Play On Philly Symphony Orchestra

Tickets are not required, but RSVPs are encouraged. Each performance will take place at St. Mary’s Hamilton Village, 3916 Locust Walk, Philadelphia, PA.