Tabernacle Choir Getting to Know Unique Conference Center


Until the renovation of the historic Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square for seismic upgrades and additions to the choir facilities is complete in late 2006, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has had to move to the Conference Center.

For many members, their only opportunity to see the choir perform is during general conference, which has been held in the Conference Center since 2000. So it is easy for members to assume that over the past five years, the choir has become accustomed to performing there.

However, aside from general conference and a handful of other performances each year, the majority of the choir’s performances, including their weekly Music and the Spoken Word broadcast, have continued to take place in the Tabernacle. That changed with the decision to renovate the choir’s namesake and home since the building’s dedication in 1867.

Aside from the logistical challenges associated with moving—the choir’s library and wardrobe remain across the street under Temple Square—the choir and organists have had to make some adjustments to meet the challenges presented by a building with drastically different acoustics.

Whereas the Tabernacle seats about 5,000 people, the 21,333-seat Conference Center auditorium is believed to be the largest theater-style auditorium ever built. The second-largest, the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico has about 11,000 seats. But the very thing that makes the Conference Center unique has created one of the greatest challenges.

Large enough to comfortably hold a Boeing 747, the auditorium has a volume of 8.5 million cubic feet. The Tabernacle’s volume is 1.5 million cubic feet. The famed London Royal Albert Hall is just over one-third the volume of the Conference Center with 3 million cubic feet.

What’s more, the auditorium is carpeted, its seats are upholstered, and its ceiling and walls are acoustically treated to reduce reverberation—ideal for the spoken word, the building’s primary purpose, but a challenge for the choir and its accompanists.

Sound is made by moving air. There is so much air to move inside of the auditorium that Craig Jessop, music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, says performing there “is like singing outside.”

Even a choir as large as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir can’t fill that space properly without some amplification—a process requiring continual adjustments depending on each performance. Not only is amplification necessary for the audience to enjoy the musical experience, but speakers are located throughout the choir seats because the singers need to be able to hear each other.

The room’s size also required an organ capable of filling the space with sound when performing without the choir, but still capable of accompanying the choir without overwhelming it. And while many organ-playing techniques remain the same from one organ to the next, each organ is unique with different sounds and different console layouts.

“Every organ has its own personality,” says John Longhurst, Tabernacle organist. “Each is designed and built specifically for the room in which it is housed. The organist has to become acquainted with each instrument on its own terms.” (See accompanying sidebar on the Conference Center organ.)

However, Brother Jessop feels the choir’s extended stay in the Conference Center is actually helping them solve these challenges.

“These acoustic issues have to be addressed every time we perform there,” he says. “Performing there on a regular basis has forced us to solve some problems that we didn’t have time to address before because we were only there two to three times a year.”

In spite of some of the building’s challenges for the choir, those involved believe the Conference Center was “absolutely inspired,” according to Brother Jessop.

“The Conference Center was as revolutionary in 2000 as the Tabernacle was in 1867. Tens of thousands of members who want to attend general conference can sit and listen in the physical presence of the apostles and prophets,” he says. He also points out that the building “is a powerful tool for presenting the gospel message around the world,” equipped with state-of-the-art studio and broadcasting equipment.

“Culturally, the world is slowly discovering that this is one of the great halls of the world. Even the greatest cities in the world do not have a facility like the Conference Center.”

Conference Center Organ Unique in Own Right

Aside from the buildings’ sizes, one of the most notable differences between the Tabernacle and the Conference Center for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is in the two organs.

The Tabernacle organ is famous for its history, sound, and size—on most lists it is ranked among the 15 largest organs in the world with more than 11,600 pipes in 206 ranks.

While the Conference Center organ is not among the largest in the world (7,667 pipes in 130 ranks), it is still a commanding instrument. In order to fill the enormous Conference Center auditorium, many of the instrument’s pipes use higher than usual wind pressure, provided by six blowers totalling 38 horsepower, to power its notes. It is one of only a few organs in the world to have two stops that descend into the ground-shaking 64-foot range, reaching GGGGG# (roughly an octave below the range of a grand piano). And its five-manual (or keyboard) console puts it in an unusual class.

“There aren’t many five-manual organs built,” says Clay Christiansen, Tabernacle organist. “And in our lifetime, there hasn’t been an organ built with so grand a bass section as this instrument. It’s a remarkable instrument.”

The creation of the organ was a seven-year project from conceptualization to the final “voicing” (or acoustical testing) of each pipe in the auditorium. Installation of the thousands of pipes was a three-year process by itself, one that wasn’t completed until 2003, well after the first general conference held in the building in April 2000. During that conference, the choir was accompanied by an electronic organ.

“During that first conference, the only pipes installed were the ones you can see,” says John Longhurst, Tabernacle organist. “That’s about 170 out of the 7,700.”

The organ’s builder, Schoenstein & Co., obtained some components of the organ from firms across the United States and around the world, from places as far-flung as Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Washington, California, Germany, and England.

“An organ builder is like a general contractor,” says Brother Longhurst. “You build what you can and outsource what you can’t. Because of the scope of the Conference Center project, more firms were used to help meet deadlines than is typical.”

But the organ was worth the work and the wait.

“To anyone who sees it, it makes a statement,” says Brother Christiansen. “Aurally, it does the same.”

The Conference Center organ is made up of 7,667 pipes, most of which are housed behind the 170 pipes that can be seen by the audience. (Photograph by John Luke.)

John Longhurst accompanies the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the Conference Center.

The organ’s pipes come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from about 3/4 inch (44 mm) to nearly 40 feet (12 m) in length. (Photograph by John Luke.)