Saturday, June 20, 2020

Pipe Dreams on Independent Lens

It was the Phantom of the Opera’s favorite instrument and who are you to argue with him? Yet, even the instrument’s institutionalized establishment still largely thinks of organ music in terms of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and the like. However, two competitors in the Canadian International Organ Competition (CIOC) will try some riskier, less traditional repertoire. As a result, they will be the one many viewers will root for when Stacey Tenenbaum documents their preparation and performances in Pipe Dreams, which airs this Monday, as part of the current season of Independent Lens on PBS.

Evidently, there were five focal organists in Tenenbaum’s festival cut, but only four for the broadcast edit. Oh well, it just shows how brutal the CIOC eliminations get. The competition culminates in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, but the musicians spend months planning, practicing, and stressing. Alcee Chriss III from Texas has a background in jazz and gospel. Despite the risks, he intends to try a little jazz in his free program. Nick Capozolli, hailing from Pittsburgh, will probably take any even greater chance playing the work of avant-garde composers like John Cage.

In contrast, German prodigy Sebastien Heindl sticks to the arch-classical, in the tradition of his namesake. Yuan Shen, the daughter of China’s most prominent pipe organist, would like to be more daring like Capozolli, but her father-coach insists on a traditional set-list. All four are very talented, as the audience can plainly hear. Three of them also have a lot of personality, so you will probably pick them as favorites to pull for. There is no question jazz fans will line-up with Team Chriss, who does indeed swing the pipe organ, with a bebop standard, which is very cool.

It is also rather impressive to see the huge keyboards of the grand organs. Montreal has some lovely cathedrals, but Notre-Dame is especially beautiful (as anyone who has covered Fantasia on-site should know). For us mere mortals, the variety Chriss and Capozolli bring to the program really adds a diversity of sound, making Pipe Dreams much more watchable. Seriously, how much Toccata and Fugue can you take in one setting?

Whether you live-and-breath pipe organ music, or could take it or leave it, Tenenbaum’s documentary presents an appealing portrait of some young, talented, and maybe slightly neurotic musicians performing at their peaks. It might just stretch your ears in a good way. Enthusiastically recommended, Pipe Dreams premieres this coming Monday night (6/22), on most PBS stations nationwide.