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A Rationale for the Tonal Design of the New LDS Conference Center Organ

by John Longhurst, Senior Tabernacle Organist, Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City

(Final draft dated 21 January 2000)

Much could be said about the rationale for the tonal design of the organ being built by Schoenstein & Co. for the LDS Church's new Conference Center now under construction in Salt Lake City. The design, as it has evolved, reflects a tremendous amount of thought and discussion, over a long period of time, among the organ builder, the Tabernacle organists, the acoustical consultants, and others. The attempt here is to summarize briefly the considerations that came into play in formulating a specification that is unique and in some ways, perhaps, rather unexpected. The principal factors that determined the tonal design of the organ were: 1) the size and projected acoustics of the room; 2) the anticipated uses of the instrument; 3) what we have learned from the Tabernacle organ over many years of varied use; and 4) the desire for this instrument to feature a tonal approach that contrasts with that of the other organs at Church headquarters.

It should be noted at the outset that the new Conference Center and its organ will not diminish the importance and usefulness of the venerable Tabernacle and its world-renowned Ćolian-Skinner organ. The Tabernacle organ will remain the Church's premiere instrument, and the Tabernacle will continue to serve as the home for daily organ recitals, the Tabernacle Choir's weekly radio and television broadcasts, and for other events appropriate to its size.

The Conference Center auditorium, seating some 21,000, is obviously an immense space. It has been our feeling from the beginning that an organ of noble, even heroic proportions would be needed to complement the size of the room. We felt the need for an instrument with fully developed choruses (both flue and reed), and with manual and pedal divisions firmly grounded at 8' and 16' pitch, respectively. We looked for a builder whose tonal aesthetic leaned toward a rich, warm, colorful sound without being opaque, and a builder whose attention to tonal and mechanical detail was meticulous. Since mechanical action was not feasible for this installation, we also sought a builder who proudly utilizes electric action. Having visited installations by a number of respected builders, we felt that Schoenstein & Co. came closest to our ideal, based largely on their recent instruments in Dallas and Washington, D.C., together with the organ then being built for Lincoln, Nebraska.

Though the auditorium is still a work in progress, our acoustical consultants inform us that it will be relatively non-reverberant. There will be a concentrated effort to assure that the spoken word is heard clearly and easily throughout the room, and we anticipate that everything that transpires there (including choir and organ) will require some reinforcement in order to be heard at a comfortable level throughout the vast space. While it might be possible to build an instrument that could fill the room unaided, such an organ would either be so large as to be impractical, or voiced so loud as to render it overpowering as an accompanying instrument—even for the Tabernacle Choir. The intent is to scale the organ to produce approximately the same level of sound as does the Tabernacle organ, keeping it in relative proportion to the Choir. Choir and organ together will then be reinforced as needed. (There will be a discrete sound system for the reinforcement of music that is separate from the one used to amplify speech. This system consists of two technical towers, left and right, in the front of the room supplemented by an Electronic Reflected Energy System [E.R.E.S.] that offers options for enhanced reverberation. The system was designed by the firm of Jaffe Holden Scarbrough Acoustics, Inc., acoustical consultants for the project, whose recent work includes such projects as the renovation of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.) The huge volume of the room together with its relative dryness also suggest somewhat higher wind pressures for the organ than might normally be expected, as well as a greater reliance on reed tone to achieve full organ sound. The Pedal division is especially large, anticipating that bass frequencies will likely be the most difficult to reinforce successfully throughout the room.

It is not anticipated that the new organ will be used for recitals. Putting an audience of several hundred people in a room that seats 21,000 seems counterproductive artistically and economically, especially when both the Tabernacle and Assembly Hall are available for that purpose. Therefore the organ is designed first and foremost for choral and congregational accompaniment, although it could render a large amount of solo literature credibly if called upon to do so.

We expect that in addition to ecclesiastical services, the Conference Center will be used for certain musical events that have outgrown the seating capacity of the Tabernacle, including major performances by the Tabernacle Choir. The Choir's diverse repertoire, ranging from Bach to Broadway (and sometimes beyond) has much to do with the design of the organ. We organists often find ourselves realizing accompaniments originally written for orchestra. In an effort to perform these accompaniments as effectively as possible, we often find it helpful to utilize two players on the bench and to have a wealth of solo and orchestral voices available. We have learned at the Tabernacle that having two solo divisions would be a distinct advantage in this situation. At the Tabernacle we have only an embryonic second solo division (the Tuba Mirabilis and Great Cornet are available on the Antiphonal manual), but find ourselves using it frequently and wishing there were more colors available; hence the inclusion of both Solo and Orchestral divisions on the new organ, offering a wide range of colorful voices. With a choir of more than 300 singers, quite a healthy sound is required to be heard above them, so several large-scale stops are included which are not usually seen in contemporary organ building. Another striking feature is the number of large ensembles under expression, such as the Swell division with its double reed chorus, and the brilliant Solo and Grand Solo, under single and double expression, respectively. The ability to control the volume of these large ensembles further enhances the versatility of the instrument.

The console of the new organ will be modeled after the Tabernacle organ console. The general layout, keyboard dimensions, the location of controls, etc., will correspond, insofar as possible, in order to minimize the physical adjustment required when moving between the two instruments.

While this organ might not be appropriate in all situations, we are optimistic that it will serve the musical functions required of it in this space of unprecedented size.

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