The anonymous donation that launched Tabernacle Choir organist Richard Elliott’s career
Richard Elliott is one of several artists receiving the 2022 Utah Governor’s Mansion Artist Awards
The man now known for his rousing solos in the Tabernacle Choir’s annual Christmas concerts had then completed his master’s degree but was counting the cost of a doctorate and wasn’t sure how he might make a living as an organist.
“I was looking at the practicalities and I thought maybe this isn’t the right thing,” Elliott said. “I had other interests in computer science and other fields and thought maybe I should just rethink this and go into something other than music.”
An anonymous benefactor helped Elliott make his pivotal decision.
“The offer for someone to pay for my doctorate was enough to persuade me that maybe it was just worth taking that leap of faith,” he said. “I hadn’t been playing as much then. The combination of missing the playing and the possibility of getting my doctorate and knowing that I may be qualified for a university teaching position after I got my doctorate, that was enough to tip the scales.”
Several decades later, Elliott, principal organist with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, will be among several artists honored with the 2022 Governor’s Mansion Artist Awards by Gov. Spencer Cox and first lady Abby Cox on Wednesday.
“The arts can inspire us, uplift us, and help us reflect on the complexities of the human condition as well as our common humanity,” Gov. Cox said in a news release. “Utah is so lucky to have such a rich tradition of artistic talent among us and we are grateful to these artists for the joy and hope they contribute to our quality of life.”
“Art speaks to us in a language everyone understands,” Abby Cox said. “It’s a connecting point. The Governor’s Mansion Artist Awards are a way for us to honor and celebrate exceptional artists in our community.”
Those receiving awards include:
- Elliott, Tabernacle Choir organist.
- Clytie Adams, director of Clytie Adams School of Ballet.
- Paige Crosland Anderson, painter.
- Paisley Rekdal, Utah Poet Laureate.
- Leroy Transfield, sculptor.
- Carrie Trenholm, glass artist.
- Philanthropist Marcia Price will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for her many years of support for the arts in Utah.
Elliott isn’t the first musician affiliated with the Tabernacle Choir to receive the honor. Previous Tabernacle Choir recipients of the Utah Governor’s Mansion Artist Award include the choir itself (2002), longtime choir director Jerold and JoAnn Ottley (2003), current choir director Mack Wilberg (2009), former director Craig Jessop (2014), and Alex Boyé and Sue Allred (2015).
“I’m really deeply honored,” Elliott said. “We feel here that we stand on the shoulders of many people who came before us, specifically in the choir organization, and we are fortunate to have the blessing of being able to use our musical gifts to bless the lives of others.”
Elliott, a native of Baltimore, Maryland, has played the organ for the Tabernacle Choir for more than 31 years, performing in many of the world’s great halls and appearing on numerous television and radio programs and recordings. He has studied at the Peabody Institute and the Catholic University of America, received a bachelor’s degree in music from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and a master’s in music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
Prior to his appointment as Tabernacle organist in 1991, Elliott was an assistant professor of organ at BYU. He and his wife, pianist Elizabeth Cox Ballantyne, are the parents of two sons.
Elliott is one of five Tabernacle Choir organists who regularly perform on “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcasts, at Latter-day Saint general conferences and for daily 30-minute organ recitals in the Tabernacle.
Shortly before receiving his award, Elliott spoke with the Deseret News about when he first liked playing the organ, key decisions in his career, changes he has witnessed within the choir over many years and a few of his most memorable moments as an organist.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: What do you remember about the moment when you first played an organ and realized you loved it?
Richard Elliott: The first moment was in junior high school. I was raised in a Protestant church and I was doing a school project. I asked the pastor if I could come in and play the organ for my project. I had heard it. I had sung in the children’s choir and the older choir, so I wanted to try it out. The very first time I sat down and played it, I thought this is really cool. It had a lot more color and power than the piano at home. That was the first taste of it.
There were various times in college when I thought this is pretty good, but I still wasn’t 100% sold on it.
It wasn’t really until after my mission and after getting my master’s degree, when I decided to get out of music for a while. I had been admitted to the doctoral program at the Eastman School of Music but kind of got cold feet and actually took a year and a half off and just worked full time at the university there. I missed it so much. Every time I would play the organ, I would think, “Well, I kind of wish I could do this.” Then circumstances actually ended up turning around in my favor and the school came back to me and said, “We have an anonymous donor who would be happy to pay for your doctorate and would that make a difference?” That was enough to persuade me to get back in and I haven’t haven’t looked back since then. Those were all pivotal moments.
DN: How did you react to the offer of someone paying for your doctorate? How did that experience change you?
RE: Well, I was pretty floored. I still can’t believe it happened and I’ll always be grateful for those people who really were angels who came to my aid and recognized that there was some good that I could do and wanted to make that happen. There were a number of people that had a role in that from what I’ve been able to tell. It wasn’t just one individual. So I will always be grateful for that.
It’s helped me to understand that when miracles and good things happen for us, Heavenly Father works by inspiring other people to do things. It’s persuaded me to be open to promptings and to try to help others when I see a need.
DN: You joined the Tabernacle Choir on May 1, 1991. How has the organization evolved since then?
RE: It’s gone by relatively quickly with lots of wonderful, wonderful memories over the last 31 years here with the choir, and obviously lots of changes over those years. When I came on board, we didn’t have the Orchestra at Temple Square. The Conference Center didn’t exist. We didn’t have things like our “Piping Up” weekly organ live streams. The choir was not nearly as active. We had Christmas concerts but they weren’t on PBS. There was no Chorale at Temple Square, no Bells on Temple Square. So I’ve seen a lot of a lot of changes over the years and it’s exciting to see the forward progress of the whole organization and of the church itself.
DN: What are some of the memorable moments that stand out from your time as a Tabernacle Choir organist?
RE: Well, right off the bat, the very first general conference I played was actually before my official hire date. It was the priesthood session of April 1991. I’ve never forgotten the incredible spirit of the meeting. We still consider general conference to be really the most important thing that we do here within the organization, speaking for the organist and for the choir members. We take that very seriously and it’s very humbling and very intimidating. We don’t want to hinder the spirit in any way. We want to contribute to it and amplify the messages of the conference talks. That’s a significant responsibility. And so I have never forgotten that feeling of playing my first general conference.
Shortly on the heels of that, my wife and I both joined the choir on their tour of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the summer of 1991. I don’t know if any choir tour has had the same impact on me as far as seeing what the choir’s music could do in bridging tremendous gulfs there between the church and even between our country, the United States, and these other countries that had been behind the Iron Curtain for so long. It was very, very moving to see the response of the audience members to the choir’s music during that tour, and then to see just the changes that were still afoot. I mean, at that point, so many things were happening and so many borders were becoming less impermeable. There was more hope in the world. We have seen some things go backwards since then and it’s kind of sad to see some of the things that are happening now in parts of the world when we had so much hope for unity and forward motion in many ways.
The 2002 Winter Olympics were certainly a big event for the church and the choir.
Speaking for things that have happened for me personally without the choir, I’ve been able to have some great experiences just on my own representing the choir and the church in performing in places like St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and Coventry Cathedral in England; churches all over the United States. Just this last weekend I was in Lafayette, Louisiana, and helped to inaugurate a new organ in a Catholic church there.
And so I’ve seen a lot of changes with those and really been able to see what the music that we perform, the way that it can build bridges and make friends for the church.