Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition: the final
Oliver Condy reports from the final of the inaugural Longwoods International Organ Competition
Just over ten days ago, the 23-year-old Englishman Benjamin Sheen was the winner of the inaugural Longwoods International Organ Competition held at the magnificent botanical gardens at Longwood, around 45 minutes from Philadelphia. You can read about the instrument each of the competitors had to grapple with here, but the musical challenge set by Longwood was unique among competitions anywhere in the world.
Making it through to the final on Saturday 22 June were five talented finalists (Jinhee Kim, Adam Pajan, Benjamin Sheen, Thomas Gaynor and Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard), each of whom was tasked with performing, among other works, a transcription of a major classical orchestral masterpiece of an overture nature – the arrangement could even be self-authored. But with just five hours of practice on the Longwood organ, the competitors were faced with an almost infinite number of stop choices, with the options to include percussion, harp, piano, triangle or even timpani and snare drum effects.
The transcription challenge was a tricky musical and practical challenge, not least since the Longwood 10,010-pipe Aeolian organ can go far louder than any ears could possibly cope with in the organ’s compact ballroom space. From Lionel Rogg’s fiendish arrangement of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to Edwin Lemare’s virtuosic transcription of the overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, the finalists didn’t exactly opt for the easy way out, and had to, as far as possible, avoid blasting us out of the room. Lines had to be clean, the arrangement ideally had to reflect the mood and character of the original score (we the jury had wished the players had studied the original orchestral score a little more closely), and of course it had to be accurate.
But pulling off a piece of symphonic nature requires a certain chutzpah that perhaps only Ben Sheen showed – a coolness in the face of unfamiliar technical challenges, and in front of a work that normally requires 60-plus players to perform. His choice in the final round was Brahms’s Tragic Overture arranged for him by father, the composer and bassoonist Graham Sheen (with tweaks from Sheen Jnr).
With near-impeccable, brilliantly registered and fascinating performances of Jeanne Demessieux’s Te Deum, Mozart’s F minor Adagio and the set piece, Seth Bingham’s Roulade, Sheen stood above the crowd and richly deserved his $40,000 prize. Adam Pajan’s daring performance of the Overture to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a major contributor to his award of second prize, and French organist Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard snatched the third prize with his own pyrotechnics – not quite accurate or sensitively registered enough to win the crown, but impressive all the same.
It’ll be another four years before Longwood opens its doors to another ten competitors – plenty of time for all those organists (who’ll still be under 30 by then) to search out and start practising an eye-popping transcription…