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."
Elliott, who serves as the Principal Tabernacle Organist, is one of five who regularly perform on "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcasts, as well as at daily 30-minute organ recitals in the Tabernacle. He loves the instrument and what it can do. "But I was a late bloomer," he admits. "I grew up hearing and enjoying the organ, but I didn't feel it calling until I was well into my 20s."
He planned on becoming a studio musician and looked on the organ "as a way to find a paying church job until I could break into the studio. But then I joined the LDS Church — the very same week as I got my B.A. degree from the Curtis Institute — and that changed everything."
Even though at 23 he was older than most missionaries, he wanted to serve a mission. "I felt like I needed to go, and even my parents, who were not members, rallied behind me."
In addition to everything else, the mission changed his musical preferences, "and when I got home, I decided to give the organ my best shot."
He continued his studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. People told him he should go be an organist at the Tabernacle, "but I knew I couldn't bank on that. There are so few openings." But he did get a job teaching organ at BYU, and two years later he did get a call. "They said Robert Cundick was retiring and would I like to be considered. I really had to think about it, because I loved teaching. I loved the academic challenges."
On the other hand, "this is the organist's dream job. Despite the fact that you sometimes feel like you're on a speeding train — between the broadcasts and the recitals there's never any down time — it's an opportunity to reach so many people, many of whom have never set foot in classical music."
Elliott loves the versatility of the organ. "There are no drums, but you can create just about every other musical instrument: woods, brass, strings. What I like best is not the power and the volume, but that you can draw out so many colors, perform so many styles of music."
Above that, he loves the fact that "you are able to use music to do positive and uplifting things, to reach people, to build them up in ways you can't with any other means."
It's true in the Tabernacle — and in the symphony hall.
If you go …
What: Utah Symphony with Richard Elliott
Utah Symphony,Richard Elliott
When: Friday, May 6, and Saturday, May 7, 8 p.m.Where: Abravanel HallHow much: $15 to $85Phone: 801-355-2787Web: www.usuo.org