Richard Elliott: 30 Years on the Bench
In late 1988 Richard L. Elliott—who had been teaching organ at Brigham Young University for three years—got a call from Tabernacle organist John Longhurst. He needed an organist to join him in the nation’s capital for a performance with The Tabernacle Choir at the upcoming presidential inauguration of George H. W. Bush. The pieces required four hands, and Tabernacle organist Robert Cundick was staying behind to host the American Classic Organ Symposium. Was Richard available?
He packed his bags and was off.
Big doors turn on small hinges the saying goes. This may have been part of the preparation leading to a permanent position as a Tabernacle organist. Three years later, in 1991, Richard had an official audition and was selected. As a full-time organist, he joined a small cadre of 11 other people who had held that position up to that point since the Tabernacle organ was built in 1867. (Two others—Andrew Unsworth and Brian Mathias—have followed him since then.) He thought to himself, “This is fantastic! Every moment will be like being in heaven.”
At the time, he didn’t have a sense of the intense, unrelenting responsibility ahead playing with The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square for their weekly program, Music & the Spoken Word; Choir specials including the famed Christmas concerts; national and international tours; daily organ recitals; and general conferences of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Choir Director Mack Wilberg describes the experience as “a speeding train that never lets its passengers off.”
For 30 years, in addition to all the performances, he has practiced nearly every day. “You are on your own,” he explains, describing the discipline it takes to make your playing sound better and better. “You don’t have someone to point out your weak spots, or areas that need additional work. And you have to be pretty solid because in performance you are under a lot of pressure.”
He compares it to living the gospel. You work at it and you get better at it. “In music, it’s not so bad when you stumble—it’s just a bad note. But it’s a wonderful thing that when we stumble in life, we have the Lord to help us repent and do better.” He finds that playing the organ every day “feeds the soul and helps those who are listening simply want to be better.” He doesn’t separate his faith from his work. He is an artist who trusts the Lord, trusts God’s plan for His children, and places himself in the Lord’s hands to do his part.
Elliott has always been immersed in music; he loves it. When he was growing up, his parents took him to concerts, folk festivals, and jazz performances. He learned to play the piano, and in the Protestant church he attended while growing up, there was a gospel choir which he sometimes accompanied. A native of Baltimore, he was a student at the Peabody Institute and the Catholic University of America. He earned his Bachelor of Music degree from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and master's and doctoral degrees from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. For a time, he was an assistant organist for the legendary Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia and today sits on the advisory board for the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ.
He played electronic organ and piano for several years in a rock band—long hair, fog machines, and all. Following his conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1980 while a student at Curtis, he realized that music could help solve problems rather than just provide an escape. “Classical, beautiful music,” he says, “gives us something not of this world.”
His music career has not been without challenge. In 2009, he sustained a significant injury to his left arm which gave him two options. Leave it alone and live with it, hoping to regain mobility but with decreased strength in his arm, or have surgery with the risks of nerve damage. He chose the surgery though as a professional musician what lay ahead might potentially cast a shadow over his career.
As he was recovering from surgery, it was a natural time to focus his practice on his footwork on the pedal keyboard. That training enhanced his abilities which have shown up in solos and at Christmas concerts that have delighted audiences for years. And his strength came back to his arm.
What he loves about his work is that he meets all kinds of people and gets to talk to them. He is comfortable at the close of a noon recital talking with tourists, many of whom have never attended an organ performance. He loves their “openness” and their “eagerness.” He gets letters from aspiring musicians who seek a path to a professional performance career because of his example. He performs in music halls and cathedrals all over the world and has made friends everywhere he has been.
His wife, Elizabeth Cox Ballantyne, is also an accomplished musician with a master’s degree in piano performance from the Eastman School of Music. She also taught at BYU for three years. When the Orchestra at Temple Square was founded as a companion to The Tabernacle Choir in 1999, Elizabeth auditioned and became one of the founding members. For 20 years she has played piano, celesta, and harpsichord with the Orchestra.
Known for his tour de force organ solos at Christmas concerts, he explains that Wilberg gives him the general theme of the program and lets him determine what he will do. His organ performances are always crowd-pleasers that come with standing ovations. He also arranged “Let Us All Press On” for the Choir, hoping to take a hymn—that wasn’t one of his favorites—and give it a fresh setting, one that communicated courage, strength, and faith. His arrangement has been performed for general conferences at the request of Church leadership.
With the retirement of John Longhurst in 2007, Richard became the principal Tabernacle organist working with Clay Christiansen (until his retirement), Andrew Unsworth, Brian Mathias, Bonnie Goodliffe (until her retirement), Linda Margetts, and Joseph Peeples. In 2020, when the pandemic temporarily brought live noon organ concerts to a halt, the organists started a new tradition with a 30-minute weekly organ concert, Piping Up! Organ Concerts at Temple Square streamed on the Choir’s YouTube channel and Facebook page, TheTabernacleChoir.org, and Broadcasts.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
“The Piping Up! concerts have been all about making connections at a time when so many people are starving for connections,” Richard explains. The videos have nearly 3 million collective views. “The programs fill a need that is more than just a need for music—it is a need for beauty, humanity, encouragement, and comfort.”