Tabernacle organists serving a higher purpose

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

Christiansen got an undergraduate degree in organ performance and then went to the University of Utah, "where I was Alexander Schreiner's last master's candidate. He was very different in many ways, but it was an extremely rich experience to study with two of the church's best organists." After he was hired as a full-time organist at the Tabernacle in 1982, Christiansen went back to get a Ph.D. in music composition at the U.

Unsworth was born into a family where "music was the family curse," he jokes. His parents, his four brothers and one sister all play music professionally. As a boy, when other kids were listening to pop stars, "I had organ records. I always loved the low, bass sound, but all the buttons and knobs were the next best thing to spaceship mechanics."

He started with the piano and switched to the organ "as soon as my legs were long enough. My mother had to nag me to play the piano, but she had to nag me to come home from playing the organ."

Unsworth holds a doctorate from Duke University. He had just accepted a position to teach at Stephen F. Austin College in Texas when the opening for an Tabernacle organist came up four years ago.

Goodliffe was studying piano with Reid Nibley at BYU, when he went on sabbatical. "I didn't want to study with anyone else, but my mother told me not to just sit around and wait for him to come back. She said I should study the organ or something." She began studying with Keeler, "and I never went back to piano."

After marriage, family and time spent in Cleveland and the Bay Area, she came back to Salt Lake City when her husband was transferred here. "I got a call from Robert Cundick, asking if I'd like to audition as a guest organist. It was very different then. They did a 4 p.m. Sunday organ recital and brought in guest organists for that."

After playing on alternate Sundays for six months, "lots of other things happened." That was the time when the Relief Society and Young Women began holding meetings of their own, "and it was highly desirable to have a woman play for those meetings. I was hanging around and filling in as the job evolved and they gave me the position of associate Tabernacle organist."

Margetts played the organ as a teen, but it wasn't until she got to BYU and studied with Parley Belnap "that I totally fell in love with it. It's the oldest keyboard instrument in the world, and I fell in love with the repertoire. It has a repertoire that covers many centuries and many countries."

Margetts started as a guest artist, then worked with the Mormon Youth Chorus before becoming a part-time Tabernacle organist. She has taught at Utah State and the U., lectured at church music workshops for some 20 years and has traveled to Europe and the Middle East to perform organ recitals.

When she and Margetts first started at the Tabernacle, it was an unusual job for women, says Goodliffe. "But we had wonderful leaders here who were all very inclusive in their view of what people can do."

Playing the Tabernacle Organ, she says, "is an honor most of us feel we don't deserve. But we are lucky enough to be part of that long tradition."

It can be a pressure-packed position. "If you haven't sat on that bench, you don't know the full impact of what it means," she says. "The fear factor is huge." But, she adds, the support she feels from her fellow organists is also huge. "There's no sense of competition, only support."

As the newest member of the group, Unsworth agrees. "Everyone is respectful of the place and those who have served here in the past. Those shadows are long, and they still linger. But there is such a sense of fellowship here. It's remarkable how well we all get along. Not all musicians can say that, but there are no egos here."

That's not to say there aren't challenges. "Often, we get music that is still warm off the printer," says Goodliffe.

"At this level," says Elliott, "we are pretty much expected to be able to sight-read whatever is put in front of us."

For every performance, there is a primary and a backup organist, just in case anything happens. But you will also sometimes see two organists sitting at the keyboard. Choir director and composer Mack Wilberg often writes music for four hands, says Elliott. "That's his way."

Being able to play the organ is an incredible experience, says Unsworth. "It's an amazing organ. With 206 ranks and all those pipes, there's almost an embarrassment of riches. Every sound that an organ builder can come up with is available here. It's a thrill to see the contrast, the dynamics, the color that is available. The most fun thing is getting a new piece of music and seeing how to make it work."

The Tabernacle Organ "has a soul," says Christiansen. "We all play from time to time at other organs around the world. But it is never a disappointment to come back here. This is a world-class organ, and playing it is one of the finest experiences."

Every organ has its own spirit, adds Goodliffe. "You feel that here. And you feel the spirit of the building."

It's a beautiful instrument, in a beautiful room, with a great heritage, says Margetts. "It's a great blessing in my life that I have an opportunity to play it. It inspires me every time I play."

And while making beautiful music is the goal of any organist, there is a an even higher purpose here, says Unsworth. "There is a sense of filling the mission of the church and doing our part to build the kingdom of God."

As composer Charles Widor said, "Organ playing is the manifestation of a will filled with the vision of eternity."

If you go...

What: Organ Fest IV

Where: Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 E. South Temple

When: Friday, Aug. 12, 8 p.m.

Admission: Free

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