Film and Longwood ‘Pulling Out All the Stops’

The masterminds behind the 2013 debut of the Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition – as well as the documentary that chronicles it – may have been channeling the gardens’ founder, Pierre S. du Pont.

“Nothing here happens by chance,” Nathan Hayward III, who heads Longwood’s board of trustees, told the audience at the documentary’s premiere. It’s aptly titled “Pulling Out All the Stops.”

Peter R. Conte, Longwood's organist, gives the semi-finalists a primer on Longwood's organ, which boasts 10,010 pipes.

Peter R. Conte, Longwood's organist, gives the semi-finalists a primer on Longwood's organ, which boasts 10,010 pipes.

Hayward joked that he received a four-page memo just for the premiere, which was held on Tuesday, Feb. 24. “It’s absolutely in keeping with the tenor of the man who founded this place. He never left anything to chance.”

Offering an example of just how particular du Pont could be, Hayward referenced a memo that said du Pont was seeking a head gardener who would never cut any branch – living or dead – without his permission. But Du Pont, an avid music-lover, was just as proficient in the ballroom as he was in the gardens, Hayward said, which is why the board embraced the organ competition.

“This is a part of Longwood’s heritage that needs to be fulfilled,” Hayward said.

More than 200 people gathered Tuesday evening in the elegant room that du Pont built in 1929 to house a custom-built Aeolian organ, one of the world’s largest. At the time he was also in charge of both General Motors and the Du Pont Company.

Based on the enthusiastic reception the film received, area residents may want to mark their calendars: WHYY will broadcast “Pulling Out All the Stops” at 8 p.m. on Sunday, March 22.

Guests mingle outside Longwood's Ballroom on Tuesday night before the premiere of 'Pulling Out All the Stops.'

Guests mingle outside Longwood's Ballroom on Tuesday night before the premiere of 'Pulling Out All the Stops.'

In addition to viewing the documentary, the crowd enjoyed a cocktail reception and an organ concert by Benjamin Sheen, the contest’s first-place winner. It also heard about the evolution of both the competition and the film.

Longwood’s Executive Director Paul B. Redman explained that the competition grew out of a desire “to connect the organ to contemporary audiences.” One way to help ensure the instrument’s longevity was to seek young performers, and so a group of distinguished judges sorted through audition tapes from hopefuls aged 18 to 30, ultimately selecting 10 rising stars representing eight different countries.

Given only five hours to master Longwood’s complex instrument, those competitors faced off against each other at Longwood before being winnowed to a field of five. The pressure mounted as the five finalists battled for three cash prizes: first, $40,000; second, $15,000; and third, $5,000.

Redman said he remembered being at the Philadelphia Flower Show two years ago when he got a call from filmmaker and producer Eric Schultz of PCK Media about the possibility of doing the documentary. He said he loved the idea but recognized that it would require “angels.” Both Redman and Schultz said the project would never have happened without sponsorship from Wilmington Trust, the Frederick R. Haas Legacy Fund, Crystal Trust, and the 1916 Foundation.

The documentary gives a behind the scenes view of the competition as Benjamin Sheen (left) prepares himself to go on stage.

The documentary gives a behind-the-scenes view of the competition as Benjamin Sheen (left) prepares himself to go on stage.

The documentary offers a behind-the-scenes view of the competition from the arrival of the young organists at Longwood to the announcement of the top prize. In addition to showcasing the competition’s beautiful backdrop, the film also provides some history on the gardens as well as organ music. And along the way, Schultz, who visited the five finalists in their hometowns, captures their angst, drama, and even some humor.

For example, finalist Thomas Gaynor from New Zealand decided to utilize one of the organ’s more unusual features, supplementing the sound of flutes at the end of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” by pushing a lever that added a chirping sound – produced when air passes through pipes sitting in a cup of glycerin.

Gaynor said someone in the audience approached him after the performance and expressed condolences that a bird must have gotten into the ballroom.

Schultz said the experience produced three key revelations. First, the talent astounded him. “There are some truly incredible musicians from around the world,” he said.

Secondly, he found that trying to film someone playing the organ posed a challenge since their backs faced the audience. He said that difficulty was solved by Colvin Randall, a Longwood historian. Randall not only found an old photo of a Longwood organ performance that showed a mirror on top of the console, but he also found the exact mirror. “We used it get close-ups,” Schultz said.

Finally, Schultz realized through his research that he had a familial connection to the competition. His grandfather, an organ instructor at the Curtis Institute, had visited du Pont at Longwood and had taught some of the competition’s judges. “He was also the teacher of the teacher of the teacher of Ben,” the first-prize winner, Schultz said.

The competition committee was headed by Pierre du Pont’s niece, Cynthia du Pont Tobias, who applauded the documentary. “I think it understood Longwood’s mission and showed how we strive - and achieve - excellence,” she said.

Longwood will not have a lot of time to celebrate the success of the competition and the documentary. Plans are already underway for the Second Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition, Tobias said. The two-day, semi-final round will begin June 14, 2016, and the final round is scheduled for June 18, 2016.

 

 

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