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Scott Winterton, Deseret News
Longtime Mormon Tabernacle Choir organist Clay Christiansen received a standing ovation from the choir members after the Sunday morning session of the 188th Annual General Conference, his last before retirement.

SALT LAKE CITY — After 36 years of playing the organ at general conference, Clay Christiansen's last performance ended with a standing ovation by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and others present in the Conference Center after the Sunday morning session of the 188th Annual General Conference.

Christiansen acknowledged the applause by raising his arms in gratitude and nodding a silent "thank you," first to the choir and then to the audience.

"It chokes me up," Christiansen told the Deseret News on Sunday evening. "It’s all a great labor of love and I feel like the most blessed man on the face of the earth to have been part of it for over 35 years. I’m going to miss it. I’m so thrilled at the wonderful hands that the choir is in, both with organists and conductors, and I'm excited for what the future will bring to the (LDS) Church and to the world through them."

Christiansen, one of six Mormon Tabernacle Choir organists, will officially retire later this month. Since he was hired in 1982, he has played for the choir's weekly "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcast for more than 35 years, including 72 general conference weekends. He was honored that his last broadcast and conference session could include some of his favorite pieces, including "Consider the Lilies," he said.

"No more early mornings of getting up with the choir," Christiansen said. "I'm going to miss being in the best seat in the house to hear that marvelous sound."

Performing with the choir in Israel, the thunderous applause received at the American Choral Director's Association national convention in Los Angeles and the choir's recent tour to Europe where he and other organists played some of the world's most historic organs are among his "mountain top" experiences, Christiansen said.

While moving on, Christiansen will continue playing the organ so he can "stay in shape." The husband and father of 13 children is getting an organ for his home and has more out-of-town engagements in the next year than he's had over the last several years. One year from now, Christiansen is looking forward an invitation to perform at the Octave of Easter Celebrity Recital at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C., a flagship Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

"My wife has been telling everybody, 'He's not retiring. He's never going to retire,'" Christiansen said with a laugh.

While they wish him well and hope for volunteer opportunities that will bring him back, members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will miss Christiansen. Bonnie Lee, a choir member from Provo, said Christiansen is one of her "favorite people on the planet."

"He is someone I truly respect," Lee said Sunday. "I have felt so privileged to have the honor of singing with him while he was playing. He is someone who takes time from his busy, busy schedule to help others. He teaches people how to play the organ. He is the first one to congratulate you. He is warm, he is loving. We are going to miss him desperately."

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Another choir member, Kristin Gerdy, of Orem, said repeated standing ovations at last Thursday's and Sunday morning's rehearsals felt inadequate for a man who has played the organ for more than one-third of the choir's nearly 90 years of "Music and the Spoken Word."

How do you replace a talented organist and friend like Christiansen?

"It’s hard to imagine the Mormon Tabernacle Choir without Clay," Gerdy said. "Never one for the spotlight or personal accolades...he is the most loving and kind person. He plays with so much heart. Everything that he has given to this organization, to the church, to the choir, over the years, I don’t know that there is anybody who can replace Clay."