Nestled amidst the seemingly endless varieties of plant
life at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania lies a
mechanical musical beast. The Longwood Organ has delighted both
instrumentalists and listeners alike since the industrialist and
philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont commissioned its construction in 1929.
With its wide range of tonal capabilities and its newly installed
computerized components, the instrument allows organists almost
unparalleled musical control. Nearly a century after its completion, the
Longwood Organ would again take center stage in 2013 with the first
ever Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition. Open to young
organists ages 18 to 30 from around the world, an initial group of
competition entrants would be reduced to ten semi-finalists, all of whom
would compete before a live panel of judges. Of those ten
semi-finalists, five would go on to compete in the competition finals
for cash prizes totaling $60,000. Longwood’s First Prize of $40,000 is
the largest cash award anywhere for an organ competition.
I made the over two-hour journey from New York City to
Longwood Gardens to attend the Competition finals on Saturday June 22,
2013. I must admit—the idea of listening to five organists each play a
45-minute set (back to back with only a 15-minute intermission between
each performance), seemed like a formidable challenge indeed. But both
the finalists’ extraordinary musicality and the event as a whole
surprised everyone in attendance at every turn. Of special note was the
seamless integration of multimedia audio and video during the organists’
performances. A plethora of potent camera angles (projected onto
numerous HD monitors throughout the hall), allowed the hundreds of
competition attendees to watch every finger and foot gesture as they
occurred. Particularly engaging was the overhead “keyboard cam,” which
displayed the Longwood Organ’s four manuals as each competitor did
battle upon them.
Each Longwood finalist was required to perform a program
of five selections that had to be approved by the competition judges,
many chosen from the standard organ repertoire. One piece picked by the
judges that each finalist had to perform was “Roulade” by Seth Bingham
(1882-1972). The judging panel consisted of BBC Music Magazine editor
and fellow organist Oliver Condy, Yale University organist and professor
Thomas Murray, Longwood Organ principal organist Peter Richard Conte,
organist and London Royal College of Music professor Sophie-Veronique
Cauchefer-Choplin, and head judge Paul Jacobs, organist and chair of the
organ department at the Juilliard School in New York City. The
Competition finals were ebulliently hosted by Michael Barone, who has
been the host and senior executive producer of the weekly syndicated
radio program Pipedreams since 1982.
The first competitor to take the stage was Adam Pajan, a
26 year-old Pennsylvania native and a doctoral candidate in organ
performance at the University of Oklahoma’s American Organ Institute.
Pajan performed a varied program which concluded with a spirited reading
of the famed Brazilian Choro composition “Tico Tico,” composed by
Zequinha de Abreu (1880-1935).
Second to compete was Thomas Gaynor, who at 21 was the
youngest finalist in the Competition. Gaynor earned his master’s in
organ performance and literature at the esteemed Eastman School of Music
in Rochester, NY and has already won numerous competition awards.
Gaynor proved to be a formidable force on the instrument with an
especially impressive command of the bass pedals and stops.
Finalist number three was 27 year-old Jinhee Kim from
Seoul, South Korea. Currently enrolled in the master’s program for organ
at Indiana University, Kim played a modern, impressionistic, and almost
modal jazz-like set that included works by Marcel Dupre (1886-1971),
Jean Langlais (1907-1991), and Jehan Alain (1911-1940). Kim’s precise
phrasing and execution were particularly impressive throughout.
The second to last finalist Benjamin Sheen was rumored to
be the competition favorite, and his performance did little to refute
the buzz. Sheen, 23 and from London, earned his master’s degree from the
Juilliard School in New York studying under head judge Paul Jacobs.
Sheen’s performance was a master class in musical excellence. From his
deft organ touch to his careful control of the Longwood Organ’s near
extra-terrestrial tonal palette, Sheen evinced confidence and control at
The last finalist to take the Longwood stage was
Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard. A native of France and the oldest
competitor at age 31, Marle-Ouvrard currently teaches improvisation at
the conservatory of Viry-Chatillon. His performance was the most
dramatic of the five finalists, with wild shifts in organ volume and
tonal contour, and an effusive reading of the “The Sorcerer’s
Apprentice, Opus 54” by Paul Dukas (1865-1935), famously included in
Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film Fantasia.
After a brief pause to allow the judges to confer, the
Competition awarded its Clarence Snyder Third Prize and $5,000 to
Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard, its Firmin Swinnen Second Prize and
$15,000 to Adam Pajan, and its Pierre S. du Pont First Prize and $40,000
to Benjamin Sheen, who also won a contract with Phillip Truckenbrod
Concerts Artists and a 2013 performance at Longwood Gardens.
The next Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition is scheduled for 2016, and you can bet that Keyboard will be there.
The Longwood Pipe Organ
Famed entrepreneur and music aficionado Pierre S. du Pont
commissioned the Longwood Organ in 1929, building an ornate ballroom to
house and protect it from the elements. The instrument was designed by
organist Firmin Swinnen and built by the Aeolian corporation in Garwood,
New Jersey at a cost of $122,700—which would equote to approximately
$1.7 million today. Weighing in at 55 tons, the organ features 10,010
pipes divided into 146 ranks. The Longwood organ can be described as a
“symphonic instrument designed to play transcriptions of orchestral
music, reflecting a form of entertainment popular in the early twentieth
century.” Other features of the four-manual organ included a
conventional Aeolian stop list structure inflated to a majestic scale;
complete flute and reed choruses for the great, swell, and solo
divisions; a choir, floating, string, percussion, and fanfare sections, a
pedal section with five 32-foot stops, and a Duo-Art paper roll player
for automatic operation.
The organ was refurbished once in the 1950s but would need
repairs again in the early 2000s. From 2004 to 2008, nearly every
system in the organ was rebuilt during an extensive restoration process.
The instrument was also fitted with computerized components allowing
both extensive control and automated recording and playback. CLICK HERE to explore the organ in more detail.