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Cameron J.S. Kuzepski, 22-year-old Delaware native, shows ‘depth of expression and technical skill’ as principal organist at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen

Cameron Kuzepski is the principal organist at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Kevin J. Parks photo/Catholic Review (Baltimore).

By George Matysek
Catholic Review (Baltimore)

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 stone walls at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland during the 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” 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.

At just 22, Kuzepski is still completing two bachelor’s degrees (in organ and harpsichord historical performance) at the Peabody Conservatory of The 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 said. “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 The 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.

Julie Grace Males, music director of the cathedral and director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said Kuzepski’s command of the instrument allows the assembly to hear the fullness of timbres and registration possibilities.

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,” the curly-haired musician said with a smile.

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, a registered parishioner of his home parish of St. Matthew in Wilmington, commutes via train to Baltimore. He said he approaches his organ playing in the same way, whether he’s playing in the presence of the archbishop 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.”

Kuzepski will give a free organ concert March 5 at 3 p.m. at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, performing compositions from composers of the last four centuries.

Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org