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Organ power: Tabernacle musician Richard Elliott is performing with Utah Symphony

Published: Saturday, April 30 2011 4:00 p.m. MDT

Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott practices at the Tabernacle for an upcoming concert with the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Organ and orchestra make a beautiful marriage. And it is a lot like a marriage, Mormon Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott says. "They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but together, the sum is greater than the parts."

For example, he says, "the orchestra has a wonderful expressive quality that's much different from what you get from a solo organ. But pipe organs have a long, sustaining underpinning in the medium and bass

range that you don't get with orchestra."

The strengths of the pairing is one reason all the great classical composers employed organs, Elliott says. And it's why in recent decades, the organ, which had slowly been shifted to more religious settings, is regaining favor with orchestras. "There's been a big turnaround in the past 20 years. Now a lot of major symphonies, like Philadelphia, the L.A. Philharmonic, Dallas, Seattle, Cleveland, are installing pipe organs. The pendulum is swinging back."

It's a trend, he says, that is naturally "very heartening to me."

Listeners will have a chance to hear the organ-orchestra combination this weekend when Elliott performs with the Utah Symphony Orchestra in Abravanel Hall.

Under the direction of guest conductor Andrew Grams, Elliott will perform "Symphony No. 3 in C Minor" (known as the "Organ Symphony"), by Camille Saint-Saens, and "Concerto in G minor for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani," by Francis Poulenc. Also on the program is "Scherzo Fantastique," an early work by Igor Stravinsky.

"It's exciting to be playing with the Utah Symphony," says Elliott, who is particularly pleased with the program. This will be his fourth time for the Saint-Saens, each time with a different conductor. But it will be the first time for the Poulenc.

The "Organ Symphony" is considered one of the most iconic and most frequently performed works for organ and orchestra.

It's a "dynamic and powerful" piece, with virtuosic piano passages, a musical style typical of the Romantic period, and wonderful C-major chord "that comes out of nowhere. If there's anyone out there with a tendency to drift off — well, it has a hair-raising effect."

Saint-Saens — and many others — felt the "Organ Symphony" was his greatest work. "Some people may associate it with the movie 'Babe,' where it was used, but Saint-Saens made such good use of organ resources. He really knew the organ and how to use it. It's a thrilling work, and there are places that send chills up and down the spine."

The Poulenc, with its Baroque overtones, has a haunting beauty, "although you get a little wit and spice," Elliott says. "And it had a great, great melody. That's not always true of organ works. Bach wrote some great fugues, for example, with beautiful, soaring music, but not the kind of melody that you go away singing."

What is also fun about the two pieces, he says, is "that they both have bicentennial connections. Saint-Saens wrote his piece as a memorial to Franz Liszt, who was born in 1811. And Poulenc, who was writing his first composition for organ, was influenced by the great Saint-Sulpice organ in Paris built by Aristide Cavaille-Coll, who was also born in 1811."

Probably no one else is aware of that connection, Elliott says. "Its the kind of trivia that only organists wrap their minds around."

And speaking of interesting connections, he says, he also shares a couple with conductor Grams. "We both have roots in Maryland and we both went to the Curtis Institute of Music, although not at the same time. So, I'm looking forward to working with him. He's considered one of the country's rising young conductors."

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