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Tabernacle organists serving a higher purpose

Published: Saturday, Aug. 6 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Tabernacle organists Clay Christiansen, left, Bonnie Goodliffe, Richard Elliott and Andrew Unsworth pose for a photo at the Tabernacle in July.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Mozart called it the "king of instruments." Balzac thought of it as "the grandest, most daring, the most magnificent of all instruments invented by human genius." Beethoven placed those who could master it "at the very head of all virtuosi." Alexander Pope felt it made "Th' immortal pow'rs incline their ear."

For centuries, the organ has held a special place in music repertoire, and that place is still honored today.

For the three men and two women who currently play the historic Tabernacle Organ on Temple Square, there is little else in their professional lives to equal the experience of this "dream job."

Richard Elliott, Clay Christiansen and Andrew Unsworth are full-time organists, a position that has been held by only 13 people since the organ was built in 1867. Linda Margetts and Bonnie Goodliffe are part-time organists who work with the training choir and also in rehearsing and performing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for weekly broadcasts, tours, LDS conference meetings and take part in daily organ recitals at Temple Square.

The five organists will also be showcasing their versatility and love of the organ as participants in the Organ Fest IV at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Friday, Aug. 12.

The free concert, co-sponsored by Classical 89, KBYU-FM, will also feature cathedral organist Douglas O'Neill.

"Pipe organs can symbolize the collective voice of a community," says Marcus Smith, Classical 89 general manager. "And Organ Fest brings our community together in support of pipe organs. Each Organ Fest reminds me not only that this music is one of the most elegant and compelling art forms, but that I'm hardly alone in the enjoyment of it." Organ Fest, he says, is a reminder of the ways pipe organs, wherever they are housed, "bless and grace our lives."

Though somewhat smaller than the Tabernacle Organ, the Cathedral organ "is a versatile instrument," says Unsworth, who served as an organist there for five years before joining the Tabernacle Organ ranks.

"It's a more aggressive organ," adds Elliott, "with its own clarity and power. And the acoustics there are of the more traditional European stone kind, as opposed to the wood-and-plaster acoustics of the Tabernacle, which are also great, but different."

Although the five organists share a common love of the organ, they took different paths to reach their current positions. After all, says Unsworth, "being a Tabernacle organist is not something you can plan your career around. There are so few openings."

Most of them agree with Goodliffe, who says "it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time." But for them all, there's no question it is a "dream job."

Elliott, who serves as the principal organist, considers himself "a late bloomer" as far as the organ is concerned. As a teen, he was more into rock music. As a student, he saw it as something that might be useful in his planned career as a studio musician. Then, he joined the LDS Church, and "everything changed." He studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and received a doctorate at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. He was a music professor at BYU when the call came that Robert Cundick was retiring, wondering if he wanted to apply. "I loved teaching," he says, but it was too great an opportunity to pass up.

Christiansen was always "attracted to the organ sound," but it was when he came under the tutelage of J.J. Keeler, who taught for years at BYU, that he totally fell in love with it. In fact, he wanted to give up piano and just play the organ, "but Keeler told me if I didn't practice the piano enough, organ lessons would stop. Piano technique is fundamental to organ technique."

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