After 40 years, the first female organist to perform on a ‘Music and the Spoken Word’ broadcast takes her final bow

After Bonnie Goodliffe’s fingers masterfully played the concluding notes of her last recital piece, the 76-year-old organist accepted a bouquet of red roses and bowed to a standing ovation at the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Monday, Oct. 21.

The celebrated occasion marked 40 years to the day — Sunday, Oct. 21, 1979, — that Goodliffe played her first recital as a guest organist in the historic Tabernacle.

“Playing on the Tabernacle organ is always a special occasion for me, but today’s recital has particular significance,” Goodliffe told the large audience of family, friends, students and members of the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, among others.

Little did Goodliffe realize at age 36 in 1979 how that inaugural performance would launch four decades of musical study, countless rehearsals, stressful performances, cherished friendships and treasured memories.

“I never dreamed something like this would ever happen to me. The years just kept piling up,” Goodliffe said in an interview days earlier. “A lot of times I thought surely they are going to tell me that I have to leave or retire or something. But nobody ever did. There’s no mandatory age but this seemed like a good time after 40 years.”

Retiring Temple Square organist Bonnie Goodliffe performs a recital piece at the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.
Retiring Temple Square organist Bonnie Goodliffe performs a recital piece at the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. Credit: Cody Bell, The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square

As a part-time Temple Square organist, Goodliffe performed with the Tabernacle Choir, the Temple Square Chorale and Bells on Temple Square. She taught music theory for new entrants into the Tabernacle Choir since the early days of Choir School. She was the first female organist to perform on a “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast. Goodliffe, along with Linda Margetts, became the first women to play in general conference sessions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She also served on the Church’s general music committee that published the 1985 hymnbook, in addition to being a composer and arranger of music.

“It was never my dream to have this job because there was no job. It just sort of evolved,” Goodliffe said. “I feel like I was very lucky. I was in the right spot at the right time, and fortunately, I had the right training.”

In her special recital Monday, Goodliffe selected music that paid tribute to several individuals whose influence on her made the last 40 years possible, including teachers, mentors, fellow organists and her parents, she said.

One was Robert Cundick, the former principal Tabernacle organist.

After years of education in organ performance, music theory and composition at places like the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, and receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brigham Young University, a phone call from Cundick led Goodliffe to audition as a guest organist, she said.

Goodliffe expressed her appreciation for former Tabernacle organist John Longhurst, a “great mentor and friend,” as well as organist Richard Elliott, her “boss” and fellow organist for the last 12 years. She thanked Elliott for “his sensitive leadership and friendship” before playing his arrangement of “I Need Thee Every Hour,” one of her favorites.

Elliott admitted to dreading Goodliffe’s departure, not only because it’s hard to find a replacement, but because working “in the trenches” together for so long has created a strong bond of friendship and support for one another. Feelings of competition or ego never existed. He has also appreciated her sense of humor before a stressful performance, he said.

“There’s a lot of pressure in what we do,” Elliott said. “She was always able to crack a joke or say something that made everybody relax and feel good about things.”

Elliott praised Goodliffe for her consistency, discipline and planning skills as well as her ability to prepare. He recalled a lecture Goodliffe gave a few years ago on the topic, “Surviving 30-Plus Years at the Tabernacle,” in which she informed students about the gap between preparation and performance. To make up for that gap, Goodliffe would over prepare “115%,” he said, so when things didn’t go as planned she could still be close to 100%.

“So that’s Bonnie to me, in a nutshell,” Elliott said. “Consistency.”

Retiring Temple Square organist Bonnie Goodliffe performs in a recital at the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.
Retiring Temple Square organist Bonnie Goodliffe performs in a recital at the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. Credit: Cody Bell, The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square

Tabernacle Choir President Ron Jarrett lauded Goodliffe for her years of dedication and service in a Choir website blog post.

“Rarely do you find a talented person that is so willing to do anything and everything asked of them,” Jarrett said. “Bonnie has faithfully given many years of service to the Choir and the Church. She is that rare talent.”

Others, like Denis Winn and his wife, staff members for the organists, will also miss being around Goodliffe. She’s a delight to work with, he said.

“Oh Bonnie’s a wonderful person. She’s just loving and giving,” Winn said. “Unlike individuals that could easily be prima donna, Bonnie has none of that vaunted opinion of herself. She is a really, really wonderful lady. I mean she’s been here for 40 years. That says a very great deal.”

Following the recital and extended applause, Goodliffe was greeted by her smiling sisters, who presented her with more flowers and tender hugs. “We’re so proud of you!” they said. Goodliffe was then mobbed by a line of people offering hugs, asking for photos and offering well-wishes.

Now that she’s retired, Goodliffe hopes to spend more time with her family, especially her 20 grandchildren.

“I’ve missed a lot of ballgames and recitals,” she said. “Now I plan to get to all of them.”

Although retired, Goodliffe will continue to be a guest organist with the Tabernacle’s daily recital series. Playing the organ in the Tabernacle has always been a special honor, she said.

She will miss the “wonderful people” she has associated with on Temple Square. She won’t miss the stressful aspects of performing, even though there’s nothing quite like the rush of a live performance. She will miss a lot of memorable experiences, including the humorous times and “tremendous spiritual highs.”

“I cannot imagine a job with a better payoff of more highs and fewer lows. It’s just been a fabulous experience,” Goodliffe said. “I’ve had more than almost anybody. Choir members only get 20 years. No directors have stayed 40 years. There have been other organists who stayed a long time but not many. What more could I have asked for? Forty years. I can hardly believe it.”