Young organist at Baltimore cathedral called a ‘remarkable talent’; ‘I’m praying as I’m playing,’ he says

By George P. Matysek Jr. | OSV News

BALTIMORE (OSV News) — With his fingers almost seeming to melt into the organ keys as he performed one of Bach’s most famous Passion chorales, Cameron J.S. Kuzepski was completely absorbed in his work.

Lush, languid sounds — intensely expressive and sometimes almost jarring — washed over the stone walls at Baltimore’s Cathedral of Mary Our Queen during a recent practice session.

Toward the climax of the six-minute meditation, the cathedral’s principal organist closed his eyes before lifting hands and feet.

“At the end, where it gets so incredibly slow and the harmonies get crunchier and there’s so much tension, it’s resembling Christ hanging on the cross,” Kuzepski explained as the final chord from “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß” (“O man, bewail thy sins so great”) still reverberated in the empty cathedral.

“It’s just this weeping feeling and it’s very heavy,” he said. “I love the gravitas — the gravity and weight, whether it be in the sound or just the very powerful message that’s behind it.”

Since Kuzepski was named the cathedral’s principal organist 18 months ago, parishioners have grown accustomed to the richly varied and sophisticated sounds the musician produces.

Kuzepski follows in a long line of esteemed organists at the cathedral, but what makes the Delaware native different from his predecessors and what can be somewhat shocking to visitors is his age.

Cameron Kuzepski, pictured in a Feb. 28, 2023, photo, is the principal organist at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. (OSV News photo/Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review)

At just 22, Kuzepski is still completing two bachelor’s degrees — in organ and harpsichord historical performance — at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He expects to finish his undergraduate studies in 2025 before pursuing graduate studies.

Daniel Aune, Kuzepski’s organ professor at Peabody and the dean of the Baltimore Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, said the young musician is a remarkable talent. While it is not uncommon for an undergraduate to serve as an organ scholar or assistant organist at a cathedral, Aune noted that it is very rare for one to serve as the principal organist.

“From the way he plays, just with the depth of expression and technical skill, you would think he’s older,” Aune told the Catholic Review, Baltimore’s archdiocesan news outlet. “He’s so very talented, hardworking and disciplined.”

At 3, Kuzepski first started poking around on an organ and playing by ear at the Central Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, where his grandfather was the building manager for 24 years. At 7, he started taking piano lessons, but still found himself drawn to the sounds of the organ. He eventually began studying organ with David Schelat and attended high school at the Cab Calloway School for the Arts in Wilmington.

Kuzepski, who also attended Juilliard School’s pre-college division, spent two weeks working on orchestral conducting in Bulgaria in 2018 with the International Musicians Academy and the Vidin Sinfonietta. Last summer, he participated in an internship with the Netherlands Bach Society in Utrecht, Holland.

“The organ is really kind of an orchestra at your hands,” Kuzepski said, noting that the cathedral organ has a wide variety of stops that include trumpets, strings, English horns and even one that mimics the human voice.

The organ at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen is the largest instrument in Maryland. It includes one organ in the choir loft that has 75 stops totaling 104 ranks of pipes, and a smaller organ in the sanctuary that has 21 stops totaling 26 ranks of pipes.

Not only does Kuzepski play multiple manuals with both hands and a pedalboard with both feet, he turns music pages on his iPad with his mouth — using facial recognition software that flips pages back and forth depending on whether he twists his mouth left or right.

“It’s like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time,” Aune said with a laugh, “but he’s also riding around on a unicycle. It’s a lot of independent coordination to make it all work.”

Playing in a church as large as the cathedral is not without significant challenges. From the time Kuzepski strikes a note, it takes a few seconds for the sound to reach the other side of the building. That can make it difficult for the choir and the organ to be in sync.

“Sometimes you just have to really imagine that you have to turn off your ears and just do what your fingers are telling you to do,” he said.

Kuzepski, who practices about two hours a day on organ and an hour and a half a day on harpsichord, especially enjoys providing accompaniment for the responsorial psalm at Mass, where he delights in “text painting” — using musical sounds to color the words sung in the psalm. That might include sounding a trumpet when a trumpet is mentioned, for example.

He also works hard at improvisation.

“Improvisation isn’t just noodling,” he said. “You need to hear what’s happening before you even go about playing it. It takes tons of practicing. What chords work together? What keys work together? How can I get from this key to that key and still make it sound appropriate, but also still create some tension? Because what’s really satisfying about the organ and a lot of earlier music is the idea of dissonance.”

Kuzepski, who belongs to St. Matthew Parish in Wilmington, Delaware, commutes via train to Baltimore. He said he approaches his organ playing in the same way, whether he’s playing in the presence of Archbishop William E. Lori and 1,200 people or just one soul.

Music is a way to express his Catholic faith, he added.

“As an organist at a Catholic church,” he said, “I’m praying as I’m playing.”

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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