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Competition Pushes the Limits of Longwood Gardens Organ

The Longwood Organ is among the world’s great concert organs, with 146 ranks and 10,010 pipes.
The Longwood Organ is among the world’s great concert organs, with 146 ranks and 10,010 pipes.
Eric Felten
A century ago, American industrialist and philanthropist Pierre du Pont put his fortune to work planting an elaborate garden in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Not only were there landscaped grounds and large fountains, du Pont built over one-and-a-half hectares of grand, glass-enclosed greenhouses, or conservatories. Oh yes, and a massive organ with more than 10,000 pipes.
 
A greenhouse might seem an odd place to put a grand pipe organ. But the conservatories at Longwood Gardens are no ordinary greenhouses. Paul Redman, Director of Longwood Gardens, explains what du Pont had in mind when he had the organ built.

Competition Pushes the Limits of Longwood Gardens Pipe Organ
Competition Pushes the Limits of Longwood Gardens Pipe Organi
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“His palace, that he created, was our palace of flowers and the conservatories," he said. "And that was really where he entertained his family members and friends. And so why not have a ballroom, where he could have very large dinner parties for his friends and family? And why not have an organ as well?”

Built in 1930, that organ was recently restored at a cost of over $8 million. To celebrate the organ’s restoration, Longwood Gardens this year mounted an organ competition. Ten semi-finalists between the ages of 18 and 30 were chosen from around the world. They competed for a first prize of $40,000.

Benjamin SheenBenjamin Sheen
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Benjamin Sheen
Benjamin Sheen
The pipe organ isn’t exactly an obvious instrument for a young musician to adopt. Many of the organists competing at Longwood Gardens first heard organ music in church and were fascinated by the instrument’s power and complexity. As a boy, Benjamin Sheen sang in the choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He might never have played the organ if his voice hadn’t given out.

“When I was 11 I couldn’t sing because I got laryngitis and had to take about six months off singing." he said. "And one of my primary duties was to page-turn for the organist for every service. I was exposed to this wonderful instrument at St. Paul’s Cathedral and one day I thought that I’d like to give it a go.”

With multiple keyboards, foot pedals, and hundreds of switches controlling which pipes will sound, the organ is a notoriously difficult instrument to master. The organist has to do so many things all at once that it could be described as playing three pianos while tap-dancing and flying a jet airplane. And yet, for the young musician who wants to play the pipe organ, finding an instrument to practice on can be difficult.

Competition finalist Adam Pajan was born in Pennsylvania. He solved the problem of getting practice time when the church he attended built a new sanctuary -- and put in a new organ.

“I scraped together $600 of the money I had saved from mowing lawns and bought the old organ," he said. "My parents graciously gave up the dining room and it moved into the house.”

With an instrument to practice on, one of the greatest challenges for a young organist is to master the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. At the Longwood Gardens organ competition, every contestant was required to play at least one work by the Baroque-era composer -- and for good reason, says Pajan.

“Bach is always the litmus test because it is the main staple of our repertoire,” he said.

But truth be told, the Longwood Organ isn’t really at its best with Bach. Finalist Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard is originally from Paris. He explained that the instrument has so many more sounds available than a church organ that it is best-suited for playing music transcribed from orchestral works.

“The organ is excellent to have the sound of orchestra,” he said.

Composed of 10,010 pipes divided into 146 ranks, the Longwood Organ is the largest Aeolian organ ever constructed in a residential setting.Composed of 10,010 pipes divided into 146 ranks, the Longwood Organ is the largest Aeolian organ ever constructed in a residential setting.
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Composed of 10,010 pipes divided into 146 ranks, the Longwood Organ is the largest Aeolian organ ever constructed in a residential setting.
Composed of 10,010 pipes divided into 146 ranks, the Longwood Organ is the largest Aeolian organ ever constructed in a residential setting.
The instrument at Longwood Gardens was built to be an orchestra in itself. Competition judge Peter Richard Conte is the Principal Organist of The Longwood Organ, and he lists some of the rare sounds the instrument can conjure.

“Amazing array of orchestral voices including a vast string section, and things like French horn and clarinets and orchestral oboes and English horns in great multitudes of stops you don’t find in regular church organs,” he said.

For another of the judges, Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer-Choplin the biggest surprise was the organ’s rhythm section, with snare drums and bass drums, bells and other percussion instruments.

“It’s a complicated organ, with a lot of sounds…with the cymbal, the - bddddrrrrr - batterie [drums]," she said. "It’s unique for me because never you see that in France.”

During the finals, Adam Pajan put that rhythm section to use in his performance of a Brazilian samba long favored by theater organists, “Tico Tico.”

The most creative use of the Longwood Organ’s rare features was made by finalist Thomas Gaynor, performing Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” Before the famous gallop at the end of the song comes a delicate pastoral section with flutes flittering about. As if the flutes weren’t birdlike enough, Gaynor managed to find the lever that made the organ twitter and chirp.

“It’s quite a funny stop," he said. "All they do is put three pipes upside-down in a bucket of water and it makes this tweeting sound that sounds like a bird. It’s quite magic.”

“We’ve heard pretty much everything. The one thing we haven’t heard yet is, there’s a gong, a Chinese gong upstairs that’s controlled by a kick-lever for your foot,” said Conte, who praised the contestants for digging deep into the possibilities of the Longwood Organ.

“Their determination to, literally, pull out all the stops…They’re really using every last creative ounce of energy to make their performances really pop,” he said.

​After three days of flying fingers and tricky footwork, the top prize went to the one-time choirboy with the sore throat, Benjamin Sheen. He finished his winning performance with his own transcription of a work for orchestra by Johannes Brahms, the “Tragic Overture.”

Meet Benjamin Sheen:

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