An Instrument of Majesty


John Longhurst’s mind raced as he sat near the base of the gilded pipes of the Tabernacle organ. It was general conference of April 1996, and President Gordon B. Hinckley had just announced the construction of a new conference hall that would seat over 20,000. Instantly, the senior Tabernacle organist thought, What are we going to do for an organ?

An Unprecedented Endeavor

The question did not have an easy answer. A hall of the size proposed by President Hinckley would require an instrument equal in majesty to the room’s immensity—some 300 feet would separate the organ from the farthest seats. After months of consideration, Tabernacle organists recommended that only the rich, regal tones produced by a traditional pipe organ would do, even though architects preferred the simpler solution of an electronic organ because it could easily be amplified. But could a pipe organ work in so large a room? “No one had ever built a pipe organ for an auditorium that seats anywhere near 21,000,” explains Brother Longhurst.

Add further complications. President Hinckley directed that the new organ should not eclipse the Tabernacle organ; the world-famous instrument that had accompanied the Tabernacle Choir since 1867 was to remain the premier organ of the Church. (Daily organ recitals and weekly choir broadcasts will continue in the Tabernacle.) Therefore, the Conference Center organ was to have many fewer pipes than the Tabernacle organ, even though it would be required to fill with music a room four times as large.

The final difficult twist was that an organ can properly produce sound only in the particular room for which it is designed, and this organ would have to be designed and built for an auditorium that didn’t exist yet. “No matter how you looked at it, the organ was a risk,” says Brother Longhurst.

A Risk Worth Taking

At October’s general conference, the new organ will be played for the first time in public, and all who have worked on it will get their first taste of how close they’ve come to achieving what seemed an impossible goal. (Only the 170-pipe facade of the organ was in place at last April’s conference. A temporary electronic organ, whose 76 speaker cabinets were placed behind the facade, provided music.)

Jack Bethards, president and tonal director of Schoenstein & Co., the firm building and installing the organ, is confident the unprecedented enterprise will be successful. Using projected architectural plans for the Conference Center auditorium, Schoenstein experts collaborated with Church organists and technicians to ensure the best-possible tonal quality and power for the instrument. Although the 7,667-pipe organ will be only two-thirds as large as the 11,623-pipe Tabernacle organ, everything about it is designed to preserve tonal quality while powerfully projecting its sound into the amphitheater.

The new organ will have an extremely wide range, exceeding the range of a piano by two complete octaves. The organ’s largest pipe, a 43-footer in the left main tower of the facade, produces the lowest note, which has a frequency of 13 cycles per second. That’s four half-steps lower than the deepest note of 16 cycles per second produced by the Tabernacle organ. In contrast, the organ’s highest note, at 8,400 cycles per second, is produced by a pipe whose “speaking length” is three-quarters of an inch.

Six powerful electric blowers will provide optimal wind pressure for the various sets of pipes, allowing each set to speak effectively. The high wind pressures will help to powerfully project music into the huge hall.

Along the tops of the pipe towers of the facade are artistic wooden arches constructed by a shipbuilder because of their similarity in shape and construction to the hull of a boat. The arches not only are visually pleasing but also help channel the sound of the organ toward the audience.

The organ’s sound may be subtly reinforced through microphones at certain times, such as during congregational singing, but it is anticipated that most of what the audience hears will come directly from the organ.

For the Eye as Well as the Ear

While organists and technicians worked with Schoenstein & Co. to develop the organ’s tonal and acoustical design, architects collaborated to develop its visual design. Church leaders wanted the new setting for conference to seem familiar so that members would quickly feel “at home.” Architects decided one way to achieve this goal was through the organ’s facade.

The challenge was to create a familiar yet timeless look so the organ wouldn’t seem out of place in such a modern building, says Lee Gray, senior Church design architect. After considering dozens of drafts, organ specialists and Church leaders chose a design that is modern yet reminiscent of the 133-year-old Tabernacle organ.

How can a contemporary, 170-pipe facade remind its viewers of a 19th-century, 51-pipe facade? The secret lies in the pipe towers of the two organs. Both facades have nine pipe towers of similar proportions; the two largest are near the center, flanked by two slightly shorter towers, then two towers of the shortest proportions, then two more slightly taller than the last. A single medium-sized tower stands in the center.

In addition to the wooden arches that grace the tops of the new organ’s pipe towers, a large, gold-leafed medallion at the facade’s pinnacle and dozens of various-sized zinc pipes between the towers combine to give the organ its modern aspect in appearance. Incidentally, all but 20 of its 170 facade pipes produce sound, compared to the 10 “speaking pipes” of the Tabernacle organ’s facade.

The veneer for the organ’s casework and the entire rostrum came from a single, nearly 200-year-old American cherry tree. Fetzers’ Inc., a Salt Lake City company that expanded the Tabernacle organ facade in the early 1900s, collaborated on the design and built the casework of the new organ.

An Instrument for Our Time

Unseen and unheard features of the new organ make it even more extraordinary. Unlike most organ consoles, the five-keyboard console of the Conference Center organ can be moved to virtually any location on the stage, or be removed from the stage altogether. With the aid of headphones, organists can even play the organ with the console in an off-stage room.

Another modern feature is the organ’s digital playback capability. In preparing for a performance, an organist can play a piece and then occupy any seat in the house and listen while the organ replays the piece exactly as it was executed. “That is a tremendous advantage,” says Brother Longhurst. “In the Tabernacle, organists rely on one another’s feedback, but now we can critique ourselves. In a space as big as the Conference Center, that will be invaluable.”

Because workers could not install the organ until the auditorium was complete—organs must be installed in a clean, quiet environment—less than two-thirds of the pipes will be in place by October’s conference. This will allow the organ to be played and evaluated at that time, although the instrument will not be complete until April 2001, when its remaining pipes are installed and all of the pipes fine-tuned and regulated. Like the Conference Center, the organ is built to bless the lives of its audiences for generations.

[photos] Participants in October’s general conference will witness a bit of musical history: never has a pipe organ been played in an auditorium that seats anywhere near 21,000. Although 150 pipes of the new organ’s 170-pipe facade (facing page) produce sound, most of the instrument’s majestic music comes from some 7,500 pipes of various shapes, materials, and sizes (right) located behind the facade.