Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition
Oliver Condy joins the jury of a prestigious organ competition which showcases one of the world's finest instruments, in Longwood Gardens
When Pierre S du Pont conceived and built the conservatories at the 1,000-acre Longwood Gardens during the early 1920s, he had his sights, too, on building the biggest house organ in an adjoining ballroom. Costing the equivalent of $1.7 million (£1.1 million) in today's money, the largest Aeolian organ yet built was not just a source of entertainment for visitors, whose walks around the conservatories would be accompanied by grand symphonic organ music, but a testament to his considerable wealth – and sense of fun.
It's an extraordinary instrument boasting just over 10,000 pipes, speaking out to a ballroom that's just 103 by 35 feet. To put that in perspective, it's bigger than the Royal Albert Hall organ, and just 100 pipes or so shy of the organ in Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. It happens to rank, too, as the 26th largest organ in the world.
But enough of its size. As a musical instrument, it contains some of the most beautiful sounds of any organ. From delicious celestes, to velvety reeds and strident diapasons – and the loveliest 4' flute I've yet heard – it unites the very best of church, theatre and concert organ. In its armoury is a battery of percussion instruments, too – timpani, drums, cymbals, bells, birdsong and a nine-foot grand piano. And technologically, it's the most advanced organ it would be possible to build. Organ nuts among you will be interested to learn of a tool that allows the diminuendo on one division with the simultaneous crescendo of the swell division – all using one swell pedal. And should your feet be busy with a touch of double pedalling (I mean, whose aren't?), then a slider between the keyboard and the pistons will enable you to open enclosed divisions by hand. You can assign any of the swell pedals to any division (all are enclosed) and there are 36 general pistons, with a virtually unlimited sequencer.
Just over three years ago, Longwood Gardens decided it was high time to push the organ – recently renovated to the tune of millions of dollars – a little more into the limelight. And so was born the Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition, with a first prize of $40,000, the biggest prize pot for any organ competition anywhere in the world. Organists aged 30 and under from around the world were encouraged to enter at the end of 2012, with the gruelling first-round repertoire eventually providing Longwood with ten remarkable young organists who arrived to do battle earlier this week.
I've been fortunate enough to be invited to be on the jury of this unique and fascinating competition that tests each organist's ability to adapt quickly to this gigantic instrument, their imagination in registering their pieces, their technical skill and even their sense of mischief in confounding our expectations. On the panel with me are four eminent organists: Paul Jacobs, the head of the Juilliard organ department; Peter Conte, Longwood organist and organist of the largest organ in the world: the Wanamaker organ in Macy's, Philadelphia; Thomas Murray, professor of music at Yale University and an expert in transcriptions of orchestral works for the organ; and Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin, co-titulaire at Paris's St Sulpice.
Spread over two tense days earlier this week, the semi-final required each organist to perform one of three chosen preludes and fugues by Bach, a slow Romantic piece and a transcription of a major orchestral work. All were amazing, some exceptional, and the choice was hard. But we're confident that the final five (find out who they are, and what they plan to perform in the final on Saturday here) will provide us, and the substantial Longwood audience, with a musical feast that will be hard to forget...
I'll be reporting on the final itself soon afterwards.