A global search for dominance of a legendary, 55-ton instrument came down to an agonizing hour for five contestants and a couple hundred spectators at Longwood Gardens on Saturday, June 18.
At stake was a literal, 10,010-pipe dream: the $40,000 Pierre S. du Pont Prize in the Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition, a first-place award that includes a contract with Phillip Truckenbrod Concert Artists as well as a performance date at Longwood Gardens.
“My heart is pounding pretty fast,” said Paul B. Redman, Longwood Gardens’ executive director. Redman echoed the sentiments of many in the sold-out audience as a panel of judges weighed the outcome, following 45-minute concerts from each of the five finalists.
In the end, Joshua Stafford, a 27-year-old with degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and Yale School of Music, took top honors. Stafford is the director of music at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, N.J., where he conducts multiple choirs.
The Firmin Swinnen Second Prize of $15,000 went to Alcee Chriss III, 23, an Ohio resident and alumnus of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Colin MacKnight, 22, who is in his final year of the accelerated bachelor’s and master’s degree program at The Juilliard School, earned the Clarence Snyder Third Prize of $5,000.
A new Audience Choice Prize of $1,000 represented an extra bonus for those fortunate enough to snag tickets to the finals, which sold out three months ago. It went to Greg Zelek, 24, a Juilliard graduate who serves as music director and organist at the Episcopal Church of St. Matthew and St. Timothy in New York City.
Redman explained that the competition grew out of a desire to connect the organ, one of du Pont’s passions, to contemporary audiences, ensuring its longevity. The first contest was held three years ago, and work will soon begin on the third in 2019.
“I think it goes without saying that we have the 10 best emerging organists in the world here in our ballroom,” Redman told the audience, applauding the contestants as well as the many individuals who made the event possible.
Chief among them was Cynthia du Pont Tobias, a niece of Longwood’s founder who headed the Competition Artistic Planning Committee. She pointed out that many people worked behind the scenes for several years to bring the competition to fruition.
Du Pont built Longwood’s elegant ballroom, where the competition took place, in 1929 to house his custom, world-renowned, 10,010-pipe Aeolian organ. At the time he was overseeing the construction, he was also in charge of both General Motors and the Du Pont Company.
“Tonight is another exclamation point in Pierre’s legacy,” said Nathan Hayward III, past president and trustee emeritus of Longwood’s board.
Hayward noted that while many landowners of du Pont’s stature built fences and walls around their estates to keep people out, du Pont wanted his wealth to be shared. “That was his joy,” said Hayward.
Du Pont would have likely been overjoyed to hear the caliber of Saturday night’s contestants. The process began with a group of six distinguished audition jury judges, who sorted through blind submission tapes from hopefuls aged 18 to 30 representing 10 different countries. The qualification round ended with the selection of 10 rising stars who began competing for the top prize on Tuesday, June 14.
A different set of judges, including Peter Richard Conte, Longwood’s principal organist, and Dong-ill shin, an internationally acclaimed organist from South Korea, presided over two days of preliminary rounds. Following 30-minute concerts by each contestant, the judges chose five finalists, who faced off on Saturday, setting up the nail-biting hour-long wait for their decision.
Redman acknowledged that the competition inspired him to make a wardrobe change. “They wear really fun socks,” he said of the contestants, later revealing his own pair that sported concentric circles of vivid blue and turquoise.
One reason for the organists’ fancy footwear involves the attention their feet get during the deft pedaling that many organ compositions require. In the case of Saturday night’s event, which was live-streamed, cameras captured much of that action, revealing brightly-colored stripes and argyles, the perfect complement to knock-your-socks-off performances.
Redman said one of Longwood’s goals is to expand the audience for quality organ music. He said that he was pleased that several hundred people viewed the event from afar – video that remains on Longwood’s website for anyone who wants to recreate the excitement. To view the drama, click here .
He was also thrilled to learn that many people in the audience had come from out of state, some traveling from as far away as Michigan and North Carolina.
One of those visitors was Martha McCoy. She said she and her husband, who live in Louisville, Ky., timed a trip to the area to visit friends in Wilmington so that they could attend the finals.
“It lived up to its billing – and more,” McCoy said, adding that they’d love to repeat the experience in three years. “As long as we have a place to stay,” she added jokingly, raising her voice enough that her hostess could hear her.