The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is launching a new evening concert series that will bring some of the world’s most renowned organists to perform in Utah’s historic Salt Lake Tabernacle.

The inaugural performer of the new Tabernacle Organ Virtuoso Performance Series will be James Higdon, a professor of organ at the University of Kansas.

“I am really honored to be the first person,” Higdon told the Deseret News. “It’s special to play here.”

The recital is scheduled for Friday, May 13, at 7:30 p.m. The event is free and does not require tickets.

The new Tabernacle Choir organ series

For more than a century, the Tabernacle Choir organists and guest organists have established a tradition of performing daily, 30-minute organ recitals during the noon hour.

With short recitals and limited attendance at the noon recitals, the Tabernacle Choir envisioned a new organ series with performances in the evenings and the ability to invite guest organists from around the world to come and play, said Andrew Unsworth, one of the Tabernacle organists.

James Higdon stands in front of the historic organ inside the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
James Higdon, professor of organ at the University of Kansas, will be the inaugural performer of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square’s new Tabernacle Organ Virtuoso Performance Series this Friday, May 13, 2022. | Andrew Unsworth

“The tabernacle organ is one of the world’s most famous pipe organs. It’s an icon,” he said. “It’s not just famous among members of the church or people in Utah. It’s famous among organist worldwide, and we wanted to be able to bring the world’s best organist to come and play here. We also wanted an opportunity to build relationships with with these organist and organists in the community.”

The new evening organ series will feature hourlong programs that allow for more substantial music that doesn’t fit in the shorter, noon recitals.

The plan is to have four evening recitals a year, quarterly, with three guest organists and one Tabernacle Choir organist. Guest organists in the community may also be invited to perform, Unsworth said.

“It’s a new thing for us and we are excited to have the opportunity to make these connections and give these world-class organists the chance to experience this organ because it really is one of the best,” he said.

The next concert in the Organ Virtuoso Performance Series will take place on Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the tabernacle and features Gabriele Terrone, organist at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City.

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Who is James Higdon?

Higdon is generally recognized as one of the world’s premier concert organists. He has recorded all over the world. He specializes in French organ literature but can play a full repertoire of music.

Higdon is also considered one of the country’s finest organ teachers at the University of Kansas. He has taught many Latter-day Saint organists in the school’s graduate program, including Tabernacle Choir organist Brian Mathias.

James Higdon sits at the historic organ in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
James Higdon, professor of organ at the University of Kansas, will be the inaugural performer of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square’s new Tabernacle Organ Virtuoso Performance Series this Friday, May 13, 2022. | Andrew Unsworth

“One of the reasons we wanted to have him come was to thank him for the service he has provided to the church, through giving us Brian, but also many other fine organists who came through BYU and then did the graduate study,” Unsworth said. “I have had some lessons with him through the years as well. He’s such a great teacher.”

Higdon began his studies at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He told the academy he wanted to be an ophthalmologist. One day a teacher informed Higdon that a famous organist was coming to perform and encouraged him to attend the event.

Higdon arrived to find the academy chapel packed with people. Shortly thereafter, he changed his major to organ music.

“To this day, I can think about it, close my eyes and be there,” Higdon said. “It was an extremely important decision for me and the recital was a big part of it.”

Who was the famous organist? It was Alexander Schreiner, a Tabernacle Choir organist from 1924-1977. That defining moment in Higdon’s life is one of many reasons he’s thrilled to be invited to perform in the tabernacle.

“Living a life immersed in the arts is just a beautiful way to live. I might have made a lot more money as an ophthalmologist, but I go to a beautiful place every day to teach and I listen to beautiful music from talented students and they pay me, which is an incredible thing,” Higdon said. “So it’s special to play here for a variety of reasons. Of course, I’m proud of Brian (Mathias). ... I never met Alexander Schreiner but he had a huge influence on my life.”

Learn more about the music Higdon will perform and the new organ recital series at ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

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