Unlike most of his predecessors, Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott did not grow up with the dream of someday getting that appointment.
Indeed, for a good many years he wasn't sure he wanted to be an organist at all."I had originally planned to be a studio musician," the 35-year-old Elliott says of the road that led last April to a full-time position at the Tabernacle console. "I had always enjoyed a lot of different styles of music and knew that, as jobs went, studio work on the keyboards was the most lucrative."
Fate, however, intervened - as did his later conversion to the LDS Church.
Growing up in his native Baltimore, Elliott remembers being taken by his parents to everything from Baltimore Symphony concerts to a Dixieland jazz band. Then, at age 15, he took it upon himself to slip onto the bench of the pipe organ at Baltimore's Third Lutheran Church to give Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" a try.
"I had heard the Emerson, Lake & Palmer recording and knew it could work on a medium other than the piano," he explains. "And while I was playing, the pastor happened to walk through and asked if I would play that - the "Promenade" - as the offertory the next Sunday. Two weeks later the regular organist took the day off and he asked me to play the service, and two weeks after that he resigned and they asked me to take the job."
At that time the Elliott family's religious heritage was almost as diverse as its musical tastes. Episcopalian on his father's side, Lutheran on his mother's, Elliott also claims descent from the founder of Baltimore's first Methodist congregation for the deaf. Were that not enough, after high school he pursued his musical studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
As a result, he says, "I've played in just about every major denomination, which has been a wonderful experience and helped widen my horizons."
Musically, however, those horizons narrowed a bit around the time he entered college. Up till then, in addition to his organ job, he had also been playing weekends in a rock band.
"Basically I got tired of the whole rock scene," Elliott says. "Part of it was the stark contrast between the rock music I was playing on Saturday nights and the hymns I was playing on Sunday mornings. I decided I wanted to play music that would somehow make people want to be better."
The upshot was that he transferred to Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, where he not only found himself practicing six hours a day but got himself a job as assistant organist on the largest pipe organ in the world, at the John Wanamaker department store.
"Keith Chapman was the organist there and asked me partly because of my pop background," Elliott recalls. "They wanted show tunes and the like." Of the instrument itself, he says, "It's probably the most symphonic of any organ I've ever played but also frustrating because most of the mechanical aids, including a combination action system, don't work, so the stops have to be set by hand. And considering that it's three times the size of the Tabernacle organ, that's quite a job."
It was also at Curtis that Elliott found himself tutoring a young violinist from Provo, two-time "Salute to Youth" soloist Alison Dalton, who introduced him to Mormonism.
"It was a small student body," he says with a smile, "only about 160 students, so everybody knew everybody else. Anyway, I had heard about this girl from Utah and tried to avoid her as much as possible. Then I was assigned to tutor her and found myself asking her about the church during our music-theory discussions. It turned out to be the right time."
Elliott was baptized into the LDS Church the same week he graduated from Curtis. Then, after working for a year at an Israeli bakery he filled a mission to Argentina, from 1981 to 1983, which he characterizes as "the most rewarding thing I've ever done." After that it was on to graduate studies with organist David Craighead at the Eastman School of Music, from which he earned both a master's and a doctoral degree.
Eastman was also where he met his wife-to-be, pianist Elizabeth Cox Ballantyne, whom he married in 1987. The following year found them at Brigham Young University, where Elliott had accepted an assistant professorship. Then in late 1990 President Gordon B. Hinckley of the First Presidency called them in to extend an invitation to Elliott to serve as a Tabernacle organist.
"I guess I'd known from the time I joined the church that that was a possibility," Elliott confesses, "but basically I'd been happy at BYU and enjoyed being on the front lines in the battle for trained organists in the church. Besides, it was obviously a great deal of responsibility and involved being more in the public eye, and that's been an adjustment for both of us."
He was, however, not unfamiliar with the instrument. Just after joining the church in 1980, Elliott visited Utah and attended a Tabernacle Choir broadcast, after which organists Robert Cundick and John Longhurst invited him to play the organ. Six years later he and his wife-to-be returned for a four-hand piano recital in the Assembly Hall, after which Elliott played a solo recital in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
Now he, Longhurst and fellow Tabernacle organist Clay Christiansen alternate at the console, assisted during the week by organists Bonnie Goodliffe and Linda Margetts. This week Elliott may be heard at the Sunday-morning session of General Conference as well as today's Tabernacle Choir broadcast. On Thursday, April 9, he also returns to BYU for a recital of music by 20th-century Argentine composers at 6 p.m. in the Madsen Recital Hall of that school's Harris Fine Arts Center. (Admission is free, and the public is invited.)
"Actually I expected it to be more stressful than it is," Elliott says of the Tabernacle organ post, citing what he calls "the great cooperation among all the people that work there on the square. They each have their strengths - John is a bastion of impeccable taste and elegance, Clay is a master of color - and I'm constantly being inspired by all of them."
He's also had a chance to play in some unexpected venues, like Vienna's famed Musikvereinsaal last year during the choir's historic tour of Eastern Europe. (His wife came along to perform a Mozart sonata as a break in some of the programs.) Also last year he made his Symphony Hall debut, as soloist with the Utah Symphony in its performances of Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony.
As for his parents in Baltimore, they can now tune him in on national television via the weekly Tabernacle Choir broadcasts. "And they're thrilled about that," he says, noting that "even though they didn't agree with all my beliefs, they've been wonderfully supportive. They even supported me on my mission."
But every now and then, Elliott says, he's reminded of the weight that exposure carries, and not just in his immediate family.
"Just after I started at the Tabernacle, I was leaving one day and a woman stopped me outside the west gate and asked, `Aren't you the one who just played the recital?' I said I was, and she said, `The sound of that organ is what I imagine the sound of God's voice would be.' Nothing could be more sobering than that."