Stepping Up for Piping Up!
Luke Howard had been singing second bass with The Tabernacle Choir for 13 years when his music career took a decided twist last spring. He was asked to write program notes for Piping Up: Tabernacle Organists in Concert, the kickoff event on June 17, 2020 for a new series of streamed organ concerts featuring the five Tabernacle and Temple Square organists.
The kickoff event drew thousands of views on YouTube, and Howard continued on as the host for the new 30-minute program Piping Up: Organists in Concert, each of which features one of the organists and airs three times a week on the Choir’s You Tube channel, the Choir’s Facebook page, Broadcasts.ChurchofJesusChrist.org on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website, and the Choir website home page.
Howard recalls his first taping. “Producer Ed Payne stood me in front of the camera, turned on the teleprompter and told me to ‘act natural.’ That was my training. I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands and I had never read a teleprompter before but there were my words and very quickly I fell into a pattern.” His Aussie accent—he is a native of Sydney, Australia – was an added bonus.
Howard still shakes his head at how quickly the program came together. Richard Elliott, principal Tabernacle Choir organist, conceived Piping Up to fill in for the traditional daily noon organ concerts on Temple Square which were on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic as were live Choir performances and broadcasts.
In June, the initial noon organ concerts for Piping Up were taped in the Tabernacle. In July to accommodate work on the Tabernacle organ, the concerts were moved to the Conference Center where the organ performances are live and Howard’s pre-taped commentary is inserted at the appropriate intervals. The Piping Up organ recitals are performed without an audience at noon mountain time, three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
The five Tabernacle and Temple Square organists—Elliott, Andrew Unsworth, Brian Mathias, Linda Margetts, and Joseph Peeples—select their repertoire. “I am thrilled to be performing again with my fellow organists,” says Elliott, “sharing our music with others, especially during these troubled times.”
Howard has a week to research the back story on the pieces before taping. An associate professor of music history at Brigham Young University, he is used to talking “music” before an audience. Howard also has been responsible for the program notes for The Tabernacle Choir’s recordings and special concerts for the past 10 years. “Learning is amplified by context,” he explains, “so when you have a greater understanding, the music is more apt to move you.”
At the request of Bishop Gérald Caussé, the Choir’s advisor, each episode includes a “featured selection” which draws a spiritual connection between the music to the mission of the Choir to help people feel closer to the divine. Because so much of organ repertoire was composed to be part of worship, Howard finds many ways to do this. In the kickoff concert, for example, he highlighted the original chorale words to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” now well-known as an instrumental piece, by explaining “…bound up integrally in the beauty of the melody and Bach’s masterfully-harmonized setting, are these thoughts on faith and devotion. ‘Jesus remains my joy, my heart’s consolation and essence.’”
There is no question the organ and the organists are the stars of the show. Howard, a trained pianist, describes his part as “a joyful work.” Every episode seems to include a piece he is not familiar with and a number of times the music, he says, has “just blown me away.”
Before the pandemic, organ recitals drew tourists visiting Temple Square, music and organ lovers, and others just dropping into the Tabernacle or Conference Center. In just a few short months the noon broadcasts have garnered tens of thousands of viewers around the world, significantly increasing the reach of the organ recitals.
Howard has seen comments following broadcasts from Ghana, Israel, and the Philippines, as well as across the United States. The organ is one of the oldest instruments in the music tradition. Traditionally the organ was used only in churches, but times have changed as organs are being used in nontraditional settings – like weekday online concert streams reaching around the world.