Mormon Tabernacle Choir Blog

Organists Are Not "Benched"

For Richard Elliott, sitting on the bench at a Choir performance does not mean he is out of the game. For Choir tours, Sunday broadcasts, and special concerts, he is sitting at the organ doing his magic. Tabernacle organist Andrew Unsworth and newly appointed organist Brian Mathias are equally as involved in performances.

The organ is essential to the signature sound of the Choir.

“There is something about having the Choir, the Orchestra, and the organ all going at once that just wraps people in sound,” Elliott explains. He would know. He has been on tour with the Choir 14 times. That’s more than any other member of the Choir or Orchestra now performing.

The Choir takes its own organ on tour to ensure the Choir sounds “like the Choir sounds.” The first two concerts were at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, both renowned for their acoustics—and their organs. Ask anyone in the audience—all jumped to their feet at the end—and they will agree: the sound was “fantastic,” “amazing,” “overwhelming.”

The organ is a part of that. There are very few traveling choirs that go with a full orchestra and a large organ.

At Hearst Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, and at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, both outdoor settings, the Choir used its own specially-constructed tour organ. It was built for the Choir’s 2015 tour. (Watch a time lapse video of its original construction.) The Choir will use the tour organ again at Weill Hall in Rohnert Park and at The Orpheum in Vancouver, British Columbia. The organ is transported from one venue to the next by semi-truck with the other large instruments for the Orchestra and the staging equipment.

At both Hearst and Shoreline, Elliott played one of his virtuoso organ solos, “I Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin. He is famous for these solos at the Choir’s annual Christmas and Pioneer Day concerts and he also gets the chance to perform this way on tour. The audience loved it.

It does mean extra work to take an organ, says Elliott, but the organists set it up ahead of time. For each concert the organists have their own sound check and spend time programming and rehearsing the organs.

There was a time when organs fell out of favor in concert halls. Many concert halls pulled out their large organs, following the lead of Carnegie Hall in New York. But there was something missing; audiences liked the sound of the organ. Since the 1990s there has been a resurgence of organs being placed in large concert halls like Segerstrom and Disney. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir never abandoned that rich, foundational sound provided by the organ.

The whole point of the tour is to connect with the audience through music, what Elliott calls “the universal language.” The Choir goes on tour “to give audiences a complete Mormon Tabernacle Choir experience. You can sort of experience it by watching on television or listening on YouTube or a CD, or the radio, but there is nothing like experiencing the Choir, organ, and Orchestra in person.”

The concert brings a unique combination of organ and human voice. There are always some who are not as familiar with the organ and are surprised to find they enjoy the sound. The organists are happy that people are recognizing that the pipe organ is an integral part of the performance.

Unsworth describes the organ as a functioning member of the Orchestra. “When the organ comes in with the Orchestra it provides a body, a substance to the sound. It’s a lot different than just providing accompaniment.”

The organ has always been a part of sacred music. Elliott contends that in the scriptures we read “about heavenly choirs singing praise to the Father and the Son—I think the Choir is as close as we get to that sound in this life.”

The organists are not just sitting on the bench; they are often moving around. The first half of the program in the concert halls on the Classic Coast Tour is done without interruption and applause. At one of the interludes, with bells chiming, the three organists unobtrusively shift places. Elliott explains, “I go over and put my hands over Andy’s and he gets off the bench and goes over to Brian at the celesta, identifies where we are, and Brian moves to the piano.”

“It is quite a little dance we do,” Brian Mathias says. “It’s something I have never seen or tried anywhere else.”

From the stage Elliott, Unsworth, and Mathias often can’t see the audience, but they say they can tell by how quiet they are whether or not they are engaged. “If you have been performing for many years, you gain a sixth sense how the audience is reacting to our music,” says Elliott. “I feel it from the Choir and Orchestra radiating out to the audience, and I feel it coming back to them. It’s a taste of heaven to be in the middle of that.”