Columbus Choral Society Director Alisa Toy conducts rehearsal Feb. 8 for the Fauré "Requiem" concert set for 7 p.m. Saturday at First Baptist Church in Columbus. Mormon Tabernacle Choir Principal Organist Richard Elliott will accompany the choir and also present a solo concert in the second part of the program. Suggested donation at the concert is $10. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
February 17, 2018 9:56:47 PM
Alisa Toy decided she had nothing to lose.
"I was really nervous, but I thought, why not just go for the top? The only thing he can do is say 'no.'"
The "he" is Richard Elliott, principal organist with the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir. That 360-member chorus of men and women has performed at inaugurations and World Fairs, in concert halls from Australia to the Middle East. If the organ world has rock stars, Elliott is one of them.
It was July of 2017, and Toy, as director of the Columbus Choral Society, was planning the choir's spring 2018 concert. She wanted to present French composer Gabriel Faure's "Requiem," and she wanted to do it with a premier organist.
"I just asked him -- and he said, literally, 'I would love to,'" said Toy.
As it turns out, Elliott has an affinity for the Magnolia State. He has performed in Laurel before, on an organ that is a miniature of the magnificent Tabernacle organ he regularly plays in Salt Lake City, Utah. In addition, Tabernacle Choir Music Director Mack Wilberg has a long-standing association with the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Elliott said.
"We have the warmest feeling for the people in Mississippi," the master organist told The Dispatch in a phone interview. "I'm very excited to come back."
On Saturday, Feb. 24, Elliott will perform with the Columbus Choral Society and a string orchestra -- and present a solo concert --at 7 p.m. in the First Baptist Church sanctuary at 202 Seventh St. N. He will also conduct a free workshop from noon to 2 p.m. Friday at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 2808 Ridge Road in Columbus.
Scheduling those dates was a challenge.
"His schedule is insane," Toy said of the famed organist who will tour in Africa soon after the Golden Triangle concert. "We are very, very blessed to be able to get a small window of his time."
Choral society board secretary and first soprano Tamie Adams used to sing with the Mormon Youth Chorus and Symphony in Utah. She first mentioned Elliott's name at a board meeting before the group ever knew they would be searching for a "Requiem" organist.
"This is truly a rare, rare opportunity. Richard Elliott is, if not the busiest concertizing organist I have ever heard of in my life, one of them," Adams said. "The fact that we were able to get him here at all is a bit of a miracle."
It didn't hurt that the Faure "Requiem" is one of Elliott's favorite works.
By definition, requiems are offered for the repose of the souls of the dead. They sometimes get a bad rap for doom and gloom, Toy said.
"But this is different ... Faure wanted the whole thing to be peaceful and for people listening to find healing in their pleas for their dearly departed loved ones."
In "Requiem," the French composer (1845-1924) "distilled some of the most beautiful melodies he ever composed," reads a description at classicfm.com.
The work will be presented in Latin on Saturday.
"But we'll have the translation in English on a screen, so that the audience can really understand what we are singing and make a personal connection," said Toy.
The second part of the program will showcase Elliott at the organ with a variety of compositions, several of them his own arrangements. He is famous, Toy noted, for his arranging and original works.
"Mostly it will be sacred, but I'm playing a fantasia by Mozart, a secular piece he wrote for a mechanical organ," said Elliott, explaining the piece was commissioned by an Austrian noble with a collection of mechanical contraptions.
"Imagine if Mozart were living in the present day if someone asked him to compose music for a video game," he added. "This is the equivalent."
One of the most impressive pieces, Toy said, will be "Carillon de Westminster," by Louis Vierne.
Vierne, who was organist of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for 37 years, based the piece on the chimes of London's Westminster Cathedral.
Elliott explained, "It starts soft and just builds, and builds and builds until you've got practically every stop on the organ on. It really rattles the rafters."
Toy said, "There's a reason he has it last on the program. It will be glorious for sure!"
All are welcome at Friday's free workshop from noon-2 p.m. at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elliott will explain the art of organ playing and work with area organists on beginning through advanced skills.
"I'm hoping that some people will have the courage to come up and play something because we can all learn so much from each other," said Elliott.
The first workshop hour will be tailored for those with limited experience.
"The second hour will focus more on some advanced concepts that people who are already playing in churches can use, but still a beginner could benefit from those things as well," Elliott said. "I've found the workshops can help give people a shot in the arm and encouragement so they can set goals."
Expectations are building among choral society members for the concert and Elliott's visit. Bruce Hanson was doing "homework," rehearsing at his home computer, with a link sent by Toy, when contacted by The Dispatch. The group rehearses together on Thursdays.
"It's very intensive in practice for two hours on every Thursday night, and extremely intensive right before the performance," said Hanson, who sings low bass. There is more to work on than simply notes -- melding a variety of accents, most of them Southern, to sing in Latin, for one thing.
"We all have interesting pronunciations ... it's real work to get it to sound the same," Hanson said.
Toy sets high standards.
"She's a very strict taskmaster when it comes to making sure we do it correctly ... it's another level to try to attain, in terms of singing, something you may not get a chance to do otherwise," said Hanson.
The investment is passion and dedication. The payoff is worth it. Satisfaction, fulfillment, and an opportunity to give back in the community.
Hanson said, "It's a way to inject another piece of culture in Columbus. This town is full of art and writing, and this music is just one more thing that can be added to the community. ... I say, wow, I get a chance to use my voice to give back a little bit."
Toy often witnesses the uplifting, restorative powers of music, in singers as well as audiences.
"These folks come in here to practice after a long day of work, and they leave on Cloud Nine," she said.
She expects to see the phenomenon again at Saturday's concert, especially with Elliott and his organ performance.
"I promise, it will blow the roof off," she smiled.
Editor's note: Learn more at columbuschoralsociety.org or follow CCS on Facebook. Read Richard Elliott's biography at mormontabernaclechoir.org (about us).
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.