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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."

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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