Young Organists Compete for Big Money on Historic Pipe Organ

July 3, 2013

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 every turn.

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.

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