Pulling Out All the Stops

This program airs on WHYY-TV, Sunday, March 22 at 8 p.m.

Pulling Out All the Stops takes viewers through 10 days of musicianship and competition inspired by America’s “Gilded Age” at the inaugural Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. The one-hour documentary follows remarkable organists between the ages 18 and 30 from around the world, as they compete in June 2013 for the largest cash prize ever awarded in an organ competition. They also vie for a professional management contract as they keep a centuries-old musical tradition alive for a new generation.

Pulling Out All the Stops

Organists confront a challenge not faced by other musicians, as every instrument is completely different. The Longwood Gardens organ is one of the largest and most complex fully restored Aeolian pipe organs in the world, built to imitate all the percussion and tonal colors of a real symphony orchestra.. Each of the 10 finalists had just five hours to master one of the world’s most complex instruments, the musical equivalent of learning a new language.

Pulling Out All the Stops takes viewers on a tour of the inner workings of Longwood’s 55- ton instrument, made up of 10,010 pipes housed in nine rooms ranging in size from an adult’s pinky finger to 32-feet tall. Thousands of ‘stops’ release pressurized air to the pipes to produce musical options that even include a ‘bird call’ sound made with a glycerin trick and four keyboards plus a piano inside the organ play remotely from the organ console. Viewers get a first-hand lesson alongside the competitors in how to play this one-of-a-kind instrument, including what would happen if one were to make the popular idiom literal and “pull out all the stops” while playing.

Throughout the film a collection of characters emerges, as viewers travel home with the five diverse finalists; visit with the judges, sequestered until they come to agreement; and discover the organ’s place in American history as told by Longwood Gardens curators and historians, the du Pont family, and competition host Michael Barone of NPR’s Pipe Dreams. We get to know the French organist who hopes to use the prize money to fund his dreams of mastering another complicated console as a pilot; the American contestant whose work rebuilding organs at the University of Oklahoma’s American Organ Institute has impacted his playing; the young woman from South Korea whose minister father inspired her career path as an organist; Esther Williams’ role in America’s pipe organ history; and more. Perhaps most surprising is the story of a young man whose father forbade him to play the organ and is now at the heart of its modern American legacy – industrialist Pierre S. du Pont.

Pulling Out All the Stops enhances the story of the 2013 competition with that of Longwood Gardens’ former owner, the corporate titan du Pont. Many know him as leader of both the DuPont Company and General Motors in the 1920s but not all know du Pont as a pipe organ enthusiast who joined a local orchestra to have the opportunity to play. During the 19th century, symphonic pipe organs were moving beyond churches in movie palaces, public parks, and auditoriums – even in some car dealerships. Wealthy Americans often installed grand pipe organs in their homes — Henry Clay Frick, John D. Rockefeller, John Wanamaker and George Eastman among others had one. It was a status symbol in the “Gilded Age” of Pierre du Pont’s childhood and he carried on the tradition well into the 20th Century. In the film, du Pont’s niece, competition chairperson Cynthia du Pont Tobias, and his nephew, Irénée du Pont, detail how their uncle’s fascination with the pipe organ and “impulse buy” of the Pierce Arboretum in 1906 led to today’s preservation of the pipe organ and its history at Longwood Gardens.

The film returns its focus to the finalists as they choose their performance pieces, bond with each other and battle nerves and the flu to get through what may be the most important 30 minutes of their career in the final round. The second Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition will take place in June 2016.

Pulling Out All the Stops is a production of PCK Media, LLC and is a presentation of WHYY. The documentary is distributed nationally by American Public Television. Producer/director: Eric Schultz.

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