Independent Lens


Pipe Dreams

Pipe Dreams challenges preconceived notions about an age-old instrument—the pipe organ—while introducing viewers to a new generation of passionate, talented young organists in the intense lead up to the Canadian International Organ Competition (CIOC), widely regarded as the Olympics for organ music and which attracts virtuosi under the age 35 from all over the world. Who will come out on top?

AIRED: June 22, 2020 | 0:55:43

- Welcome to the Canadian

International Organ Competition.

- It's like Olympic for organ.

- There's lots of people who could come in

and really bring down the house.

- Prizes amount to over $100,000.

- Can you just slap me a little bit?

No, literally. No, more.

Like, slap me. Slap me.

Thank you.

- Filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum takes us inside

a top music competition

as these young organ players vie for first prize.

- I've never done this to myself before,

put myself under this much pressure.

- The final round's been haunting me at night.

- I'm desperate to win this competition.

- "Pipe Dreams,"

now only on "Independent Lens."

[exciting music]

- Mesdames, messieurs, ladies and gentlemen.

- Welcome to the Canadian

International Organ Competition.


- It's like Olympic for organ.

[organ music playing]

- Prizes amount to over $100,000.

- It's a good jumping point from being just a student

to now being, like, a young star.


[thrilling music]

- I scare some people at competitions.

["Ride of the Valkyries"]

But I'm not the only person who's considered a threat.

[somber music]

Nick Capozzoli scares the hell out of me.

Nick is just really focused all the time.

He's very musical and very consistent.

There's lots of people who could come in,

just like I could,

and really bring down the house,

but we just have to wait and see.

[joyous music]

- Being accepted in such a big competition

is always like a little triumph.

Sometimes I have some doubts because I'm really young,

and I have not that much experience.

[triumphant music]

When I started the organ,

I heard the "child prodigy and genius."

That was kind of new for me,

and it gave me a lot of motivation

to keep on working hard.

For me personally it's not a problem

to be the youngest one in that competition.

I think it's a challenge.

[haunting music]

Everybody wants to win that competition,

and winning it my first time would be

like--like a dream.


- I think I'm special.

I'm first Chinese competitor for CIOC.

To play organ is like...

It's like a pilot of flight.

You have so many buttons.

You should push this one. You press that one.

It can be like the...

lullaby for the baby,

and it also can be the angry of the god.

[intense music]

My father is my professor

since 4 years old to 22.

My father really want a boy

because he know that, for the musician,

that boy is easier.

After I come to this world

and the nurse bring me out to see,

"Hey, this is your daughter,"

and then my mother apologized to my father to say,

"I'm sorry that it's a girl."

And then my father said, "It's okay.

Both of you are very safe that I'm very satisfied."

But my mother tell me she still remember the face;

the smile is so fake.

- [speaking Mandarin]

- Today, every step I walk,

I show my parents I'm eager to what to expect.

[dramatic music]

I hope I can win the competition,

and if you ask "Do I really want to?"

Yes, I want--

I'm desperate to win this competition.

[eerie music]

- This is my first

International Organ Competition

where I'm competing with

other people from all over the world.

I just really want to get my name out there

in this international stage.

- Thank you.

You really know this piece well...

- Mm-hmm. - Really well,

but this is also the moment

to try slightly different things.

[bright music]

- Hans-Ola, he's really pushing me this year

to, like, get out of my comfort zone

and do other kinds of repertoire.

I think inwardly I do want to do something crazy.

[pensive music]

- The final round's been haunting me at night honestly,

thinking about a program,

'cause that's the make-it-or-break-it.

I got to think about what's gonna

really win the judges over,

but I haven't quite figured it out yet.

[curious music]

There's this saying that people who play safe

win competitions.

But I really am taking tons of liberties.

[bright jazzy music]

I would've never conceived of playing jazz on the organ.

Hans-Ola was like,

"Alcee, why not do something that is you?"

And I was like, "No, professor.

"They're gonna be like, 'There's the black guy

playing jazz on the organ.' I don't want to be that guy."

We'll see how it goes, you know?

[gentle acoustic music]

I grew up in rural Texas.

My technique just--

It came from playing jazz and playing gospel music.

In the black church, you got to play something

that's gonna get somebody moving.

[upbeat gospel music]

And if you're gonna play something that's got

to get somebody moving, you've got to be moving

somewhere in here or your spirit or heart.

So I think when I'm playing classical music,

I often have those moments

where, even if I'm playing

a Vierne symphony, I'm like,

"Man, this chord progression right now is blessing my soul.

"Maybe I just need to, like, slow down for a little bit

so people can hear it, you know?"

That's one for CIOC.

You got to have the cute pieces, you know,

to get people on your side.

So if I don't win first, maybe I'll get,

you know, audience prize or something.

- [speaking German]

[bright music]

[both speaking German]

- [speaking Mandarin]

[intense music]

- [speaking Mandarin]

[mysterious music]

[peaceful music]

- My father is like a spiritual mentor for me,

not only for this competition,

but all my life.

- Look, another piano.

[bright elegant music]

- Let me get a picture of him.

Too bad you don't know any Beatles.

- Yeah, right.

- [laughs] - Yeah.

- Well, do you have to play anything else for warm-up?

- Today I'm playing one early piece,

that piece I just played,

and then the second piece is "Souvenir" by John Cage

who's this really modern composer.

It's just really weird music,

so, yeah, I'm playing it at the competition

which will be kind of daring.

I mean, Hans-Ola is making-- you know, encouraging me

to do something, like, weird that'll stand out

in relation to, like, all the regular music, but--

- Okay, he knows that that's a good thing to do?

- He thinks it is, so we'll see.

[curious music]

And people think organ music

should be nice and calm and free,

but I think John Cage's piece

is exactly to make a statement that organ music

doesn't have to be sacred and holy all the time.

It's a fine line between playing it safe

and taking this huge risk that could disqualify you.

- [speaking German]

[jovial music]

- [laughs]



[light trill]

- It always feels good to be home.

[string quartet playing]

- He doesn't usually walk that much.

- Who? Max or Dad? - Both.

- This is the first audience where I'm playing

the complete program of my CIOC repertoire.

It'll be really interesting to gauge where it stands.

So this is the first time

I'm wearing snazzy socks for a recital.

I always wear plain black socks.

I grew up at this church,

and now I come back

every year to play recitals.

See you on the other side.

- See you on the other side.Break a leg.

- My trusty banana calms the nerves,

and I don't know.

Maybe it's a mental thing.

My brain is always, like, flying with emotions.


Even though people have told me

I look pretty calm when I play,

inside I'm, like, a mess.

Tighten my shoes.

[exciting music]


A lot of it is gonna be mental for me in a competition.

I need to just calm down upstairs and focus.

And that happened today where I just really let go.

Thank you.

I guess that's one of the many reasons

why organists should be fit

and go to the gym just to play pieces like that.

- You're doing so well. Oh, my God.

- Thank you. - And you're so cute.


- It's always good to get back to Texas.

This is, like, the last vacation

I'll get before CIOC.

[gentle acoustic music]

My grandparents started a church,

and my dad became a preacher.

- ♪ If your body suffers pain

♪ And your health you can't regain ♪

- The notion of a pipe organ was very foreign.

That was kind of a financial luxury

that many of the churches that I grew up in didn't have.

[thrilling music]

We used to watch the "Hour of Power."

There was this old decrepit lady

behind this huge pipe organ,

and I just remember it having five keyboards.

And I was so obsessed,

I would bring my little electronic keyboard out

and play along with it. That was the best I could do.

I was just thinking like, "Yo, if this,

"like, skinny old white lady can play it, like,

"there's no way I can't get in there

and just, like, kill it."


I hunted down an organ teacher.

I was a really pain-in-the-ass little kid.

I literally just started Google searching

all the churches in the area,

finding the emails and phone numbers

for their organists, and I would just call them

and I was like, "Hey, you want to teach me?"

I had a couple of misfires, you know,

'cause it's a sacrifice to take on a student of my age

and with no money, right?

Because I had nothing,

I had to learn how to do everything with nothing.

That's a nice touch right there.

- Mm-hmm.

- Did they bury Mom with her wedding bands?

- No. - Oh, they didn't?

- No.

She passed away just before he graduated from high school.

He kind of saw his mother declining.

He kind of realized that, you know,

that she might not make it.

- A month before she died, she actually sent me off

to summer academy for organists

that she found out about herself.

Once I did that, it was set in stone.

I was an organist after that.

One day you're gonna, you know, pass over or something.

I'm gonna build you a big old statue.

- Okay. - So you got to tell me

what you want it to be of. I'm gonna put a big

old statue right here so everybody will see.

- And a quote. We need a quote. - What's it gonna be?

It'd be a James Brown song quote.

- Yeah, there you go. Get on up.

- Get up! Get on up!

- ♪ Take your burdens to the Lord ♪

♪ And leave it there

- ♪ Leave it there

[dark music]

- [vocalizing]

[both speaking Mandarin]

- In 1987,

my father got the chance to go to Japan.

He learned an electronic organ,

and he noticed this music is so amazing,

and in China there is nobody know it.

He used all his money to buy electronic organ

and bring it back to China.

[thrilling music]

I want to raise the pipe organ in China

just like what my father did for electronic organ.

Whether this dream will be achieved by my generation,

I don't know,

but I'm still working on this dream.

- It's definitely good for your focus.

Damn, that door is heavy.

I don't try to think about anything really.

Kind of just let all your anxiety and stress out.

[percussive folk music]

- We should've gotten a map.

- I bet it goes up like a loop here.

[light music]

But it's on a hill, so it'll... - Eh.

- Oh, my God.

- There you go.

- Come on.

Nick, that might be it. - There it is.

all: Oh!

- A hole in one.

- Nick, you played this before.

- He's been practicing. - You winner.

- You won. - Oh.

- Oh, wow. What do you get for that, Nick?

- Nothing. - Oh, ahh.

[light music]

- Recently I practiced like mad.

The time is really rushed to prepare to the competition.

It's really risky.

It's like I must burn my energy 200%.

- I would definitely say I'm kind of feeling

without a direction right now.

I played my first round in a competition

for the Royal College of Organists.

I got eliminated.

It was actually pretty shocking.

I guess, like, it all comes down to taste

at the end of the day.

[mysterious music]

I thought the plan was to really slow everything down,

have every detail in order,

but it didn't work for me this time.

When I come to CIOC thinking that I'm gonna do

that same thing, it kind of makes me like,

"Okay, well, now I kind of feel like

I'm without a-- without a plan a little bit."

Oh, baby.

Eight plus four.

- I have to confess that I feel a little nervous,

but I think that's good.

In the next two weeks,

I have a chance to change something.

If you are nervous in the competition,

you cannot really change something.

You had your time to practice,

so then you have to do.

[energetic music]

The pieces I like to play I practice more...

But that's not the right way.

It is really important to get all pieces

on the same level before the competition.

I hope my nerves will be strong, really strong.

- [exclaims]


Listen much more to what you're doing.

- Mm-hmm.

- You are not completely...

surprising yourself, you know?

- Mm-hmm. - One more time.

Nick needs to bring out his...

Inner craziness.

[intense rock music]

- And ten. Good job.



[tense music]

- Mesdames, messieurs,

I'm very pleased to host the first round

of the Canadian International Organ Competition.

[speaking French]

- The first round is a killer.

I mean, it's three Bach pieces

and then another early piece.

These people have such formulated opinions on Bach.

- [speaking French]

Oliver Brett.


[pensive music]

- I will have in the first round

something near to me

and what I know

because I have sung for eight years

in the church of Bach

and played much of his music.

[singing in German]

When you are singing, you learn much more to feel.

Music has to breathe.

That's why I'm really thankful

for having the time in the choir

and get such a deep insight of the work of Bach.

- Ten-minute warm-up now. - Okay.

I think the most dangerous part of this

is at the very beginning.

Also, please, it's best

if you do first

those three with one hand.

I think the numbers are in

a really confusing order on the console.

- [speaking French]


[energetic music]

Trumpet, trumpet.

Trumpet. The trumpet!


- Yeah.

- Everyone's gonna be basically

playing the same pieces,

so it makes it tough for the judges.

I just don't know how they decide these things.

Twenty really good people.

They can only take up to 12.

Got my trusty banana.

It's proven to calm the nerves in past recitals, so...

I've never done this to myself before,

like put myself under this much pressure.

If it doesn't happen tonight,

I still think I learned a lot

and I came really, really far away

from where I was a year ago.

- Let's now welcome Nicholas Capozzoli.


[grand music]


- It was, like, surreal.

I didn't even-- I don't even think

I was thinking the whole thing.

I think I was, like, in a dream.

[thrilling music]


- Merci. Thank you.

[speaking French]

- I was so angry about what happened in the first round.

I did not think that I had a really big chance

to go to the finals.

When they told me that I'm in second round,

I actually was very happy about that.

It gives one more confidence to go to the second round.

[stately music]

[both speaking Mandarin]

- Bye-bye.


[eerie music]

- There's, like, a lot of expectations for me

to really do well at this second round,

and I don't want to be like, first round wizard

and then second round just so, like, poopy, you know?

Boy, I made it.


- [speaking French]

Let's welcome Alcee Chriss.


- I miss her when big things happen.

I gotta make Mama proud.

[intense music]

- Always a risk when you perform

avant-garde music for a competition.

[bittersweet music]

But I'm at this point where I want to be me,

focus on what I want to do,

and if people don't like it, they don't like it.

[thunderous music]


- And now, ladies and gentlemen,

please welcome Nicholas Capozzoli.


[wistful music]


[indistinct chatter]

- When I was young,

I want to show my father

I'm better than boy.

But as a lady, your muscle is no strong like boy's.

So you should have much stronger will

that you want to win.

I really want to show them my music, who I am.

[bold music]


- [speaking French]

[tense music]

- I think this is a very, very stressful moment, isn't it?

[soft chuckles]

- Okay, my heart rate just rose.

- The six finalists

nous ont choisi

c'est Oliver Brett,

Mária Budácová,

Nicholas Capozzoli...

Thomas Gaynor,

Alcee Chriss,

and Yuan Shen.


Congratulations to all the finalists.

- Probably that competition

was a number too big for me,

but you can make progress

doing things that are too big for you,

and that will help me I think in the future.

[elegant music]

- CIOC is not only to prove to my parents.

It's more for me.

Am I bigger than what I thought?

Hello, Alcee. - Hey, Yuan.

How you doing? - A little--I didn't finish.

- Is there anything you want to wrap up before I jump on?

- Whew. - I know.

I'm gonna have to adjustthe bench after you've played.

[laughs] - I'm too short.

- Oh, no. You're not too short.

I'm just too tall.

Okay, bada-bing, bada-boom, bada-bing.

[tense music]

It's gonna be what it's gonna be.

What is going on here?

[eerie music]


[indistinct chatter]

- Tens of millions of people suffer from anxiety.

It's one of the most common mental health issues

in the world.

So if you experience it, know you're not alone.


[somber music]

Focusing the mind on the breath

or the body helps connect us

to the present moment.


- Oh, man, I'm so [...] nervous.

Do I look okay?

Do I have anything weird on my face?

- Nah, you look good.

- Other than my black skin,

which seems to be a rarity around here.

They really should have a black guy on the jury

just so we know everything's fair.

Can you just slap me a little bit?

No, literally. No, more.

Like, slap me. Slap me.

Thank you. [gibbers]

- Let's welcome Alcee Chriss.


[mysterious music]

[jazz music]


- [speaking French]

[suspenseful music]

[speaking French]

- Merci.

[speaking French]

[tense music]

- I had so many doubts and fears

about what was gonna happen.

The fact that I did something this big

and actually came out alive, I'm, like, really happy about.

- I did my best.

I played beautiful, so that means I'm not bad.

- The third prize goes to

Nicholas Capozzoli.


- Whoo!

- I came out with more self-confidence.

Like, I can do whatever I want to do.

I can't wait to see my mom's reaction.

- I wanted to work hard and play well,

and I felt like I played pretty well,

so that's-- that's what matters.

- [speaking French]

Oliver Brett.

[cheers and applause]

Alcee Chriss.

[cheers and applause]

- Oh, yes, Lord!

- Congrats, Alcee.

- Congratulations to our three winners.


[whimsical music]

- I think emotional experiences

and life experiences change your music.

That's not something you can really learn...

How to put the highest of your joys

and the deepest of your sorrows

into your playing.

- I don't disappoint. I don't regret.

I'm proud of myself,

and I think my father will be proud of me too.

- It's just connecting with people,

trying to change their lives through this music.

- The public voted for their favorite organists

during the final round.

- [speaking French]

Yuan Shen.


- Still alive. - Still alive.

That's the main thing.

- But it made me nuts, so--


- Yeah, it'll take a bit of recovery.

- I can't believe he hasn't fell down yet.

- My mom, she's, like, in heaven like--

like having some gin and tonics or something,

whatever they do up there.


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