Longwood Gardens celebrates centennial of Open Air Theatre

In the summer of 1922, John Philip Sousa first strode onto the stage of Longwood Garden’s open air theatre.

An elderly, bespectacled gentleman, Sousa was accompanied by two dozen superb musicians in snazzy uniforms. Then 71, Sousa still displayed remarkable energy that people marveled at, almost as much at his dynamic conducting of such favorites as “The Gladiator,” “Semper Fidelis,” and the march that made Sousa world-famous, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

The distinctive sound of Sousa’s marches came in part from his rich and colorful instrumentation. With crashing cymbals, bombastic brass and piping piccolos, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” got everyone on their feet, clapping and cheering at every performance. A personal friend of Pierre S. du Pont, Sousa would go on to perform with his band 14 times at Longwood Gardens in the 1920’s.

Once the province of the local Lenni Lenape tribe, the original 402-acre tract of Longwood land was sold by William Penn to Quaker farmer George Pierce for 44 pounds in 1700.

Descendants Joshua and Samuel Pierce started the horticultural tradition at Longwood in 1798 by planting the first tree and shrub gardens. By 1830, the nature-loving twin brothers had one of the finest collections in the country.

In 1906, Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954) learned that the magnificent trees at Pierce’s Park were to be cut for lumber. Heir to the family fortune and one-time chairman of the DuPont Co. and General Motors, du Pont bought the property in 1906 for $16,000 and saved the Quaker arboretum. In a letter to a friend, he characterized his impulsive rescue as “an attack of insanity.”

Man with a dream

Still, Mr. du Pont was a man with a dream. Over the next 40 years, he indulged his passion for gardening and transformed the farmland into a magnificent horticultural showplace, one of the great gardens of the world. Although he had a degree in chemistry, Mr. du Pont had the heart of an engineer. He built innovative things. In addition to being a brilliant landscape designer, his talents included the creation of the fountains and fireworks displays – manufactured at nearby du Pont gunpowder mills – of stupendous proportions.

Inspired by an open air theater at Villa Gori, near Siena, Italy and his love of music and drama, Mr. du Pont built his open air theatre. Nestled in a frame of clipped arborvitae and towering trees, the theatre debuted at the first garden party for 400 friends and employees in June 1914. A highlight of the Wilmington summer social season, the Longwood Garden Party was staged most years between 1909 and 1931.

Over its century of existence the gorgeous venue has hosted some of the finest artists from various performing genres, from Martha Graham to Van Cliburn medalists, symphony orchestras to Grammy-winners.

Secluded by Kentucky coffee trees, saucer magnolias, bald cypresses, and Canadian hemlocks, the enclosed amphitheater includes dressing rooms beneath a two-tiered stage and a 1,500-seat capacity. Mr. du Pont originally installed hidden fountain jets in the stage floor for theatrical effects.

In 1927, the fountain system was significantly upgraded during a renovation. Under the removable flooring of the proscenium are seven circular basins and jets that form a ten-foot water curtain which dances in time with the music. On the upper level, du Pont installed two central basins and roof fountains in the wings. The mechanical system is hidden under the stage, and over 600 colored lights illuminate the fountains.

Broadening types of performances

Today, performances of all varieties are presented in their summer series. It’s part of Longwood’s strategic plan to elevate performing arts to the same level as the horticulture.

“Bringing in today’s stars and broadening the types of performances is very much in tune with the original wishes of Mr. du Pont,” said Tom Warner, manager of the performing arts program since 2011. “We can link smaller concerts to other events going on in the gardens, [or] have composers write pieces specifically for Longwood.”

Celebrating the recent restoration of its 80-year-old Aeolian organ, Longwood hosted an inaugural International Organ Competition in June 2013. Five finalists vied for the $40,000 cash prize. The ten semi-finalist organists (age 18-30) were invited from around the world and lived on the grounds for seven days, practicing non-stop and getting to know the Longwood Aeolian organ. The major organ competition will be held every three years.

Longwood is also looking to boost its relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Though no concerts are scheduled for 2014 due to scheduling conflicts, they hope to bring the ensemble back for a pair of performances each summer, and invite orchestra musicians to perform chamber concerts in the gardens.

Longwood has also strengthened its ties with the Curtis Institute of Music.

“The students get to perform recitals while experiencing new audiences,” Warner explained. “The Curtis faculty also comes out and plays with them. We both are producing high level products in both of our worlds, so it really is a wonderful collaboration.”

Beyond performances in the open air theatre, smaller concerts will be held at different locations around the garden. Longwood is importing more than 60 free and ticketed classical, pop and jazz events in 2014.

Summer Soiree

Just as Mr. du Pont showcased the leading artists of his time in these spectacular gardens, the vision continues in 2014. The stylistic diversity of the performances is as impressive as the scale.

On July 29, Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will appear, performing music that links today’s improvisers with the rich history of traditional and contemporary big-band composition.

Other highlights include multiple Tony Award-winning actress and singer Patti LuPone appearing with her original show “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda… played that part.”

Virtuoso pianist and songwriter Bruce Hornsby will share the stage with superstar jazz quintet the Pat Metheny Unity Group, and Tony Award-winner Savion Glover will bring a special evening of tap and live jazz created especially for Longwood.

The 100th year anniversary of the Open Air Theatre will be saluted with three special summer nights. The Summer Soirée is a trip around the world. Among the featured artists are the Blawenburg Band’s Sousa marches, Ensemble Novo’s Brazilian beats, the West Philadelphia Orchestra’s Eastern European-inspired music and the Hot Sardines Jazz Paris via New Orleans.

The Blawenburg Band is the living embodiment of another era, part of a great tradition that began when towns depended on their own people to provide live music. Founded in Blawenburg, New Jersey in 1890, it is comprised of roughly 65 members. It is a full concert band, with flute, clarinet, oboe and wood instruments.

The band will re-enact a program performed at Longwood Gardens by Sousa and his band on June 27. Blawenburg is under the direction of Jerry Rife, whose expertise in Sousa’s music includes producing the critically-acclaimed PBS documentary “If You Knew Sousa.”

“The Blawenburg Band perfectly recreates this feeling of nostalgia,” related Rife, who plays clarinet with his jazz ensemble. “It recaptures a time long past. A stirring band that guarantees to have you marching in your seats.”

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