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Northern Kentucky Filmmaker Spent Years With Paavo Jarvi, Orchestra to Create Documentary

Filmmaker David Donnelly spent two years traveling with a classical orchestra in order to create his newest documentary Maestro because he feels it's important to shed more light on an art form that he says is experiencing troubled times.

“I want the film to be used as a resource to connect a broader audience to classical music,” Donnelly said. “I really wanted to show people that may have never been to a classical music concert before, something that I think is exciting and sexy and show it to them in a way that feels much more like an athletic documentary than it does about classical music.”

The film will be screened at the Cincinnati Art Museum in Eden Park on April 17 as part of the Constella classical music festival series. The film will have international distribution and should be available on most mediums by the end of the year.

“We've gotten lots of offers from distributors and it's been very positive. It will be available in the typical streams of media. We're not going theatrical, but it will be on demand, followed by TV, followed by Netflix and iTunes so it is a standard, traditional release,” Donnelly said.

He is not a musician himself, but the Northern Kentucky native and Holmes High School graduate says that he became passionate about the subject in college when he would listen as he studied at Washington University in St. Louis.

“I always listened to classical music—I wouldn't necessarily say that I was a fan. In college I would listen to it while I studied and I always somehow felt connected to it, but I never studied it or was passionate about it really. But then I kind of fell in love with it and I wanted to let other people see how I saw it which was something that was very intense and athletic in many ways—especially the accomplishments of the musicians.”

The athletic comparisons make more sense when learning that Donnelly played football in college before suffering an injury during his sophomore season that finished his career. He said that his musical past consisted of briefly playing the trumpet which he learned he was not very good at.

“I played the trumpet very briefly. I felt really sorry for my parents in that time. It was not good. I played a little bit of piano growing up too,” Donnelly said. “I wanted to be somebody that was cool, that got cheerleaders. I wanted to be kind of popular and cool. So, like most boys do, I played football. It wasn't something that I necessarily liked. So I think if I would have seen a movie like this when I was younger, maybe I would have been much more apt to do something that I truly am passionate about which is more in the arts.”

Donnelly credits the International Baccalaureate program at Holmes as a big part of the success he has had in his professional life.

“Going to Holmes in the IB program was the best decision of my life. It was an amazing experience and it had a very strong influence to the rest of my life.”

Maestro trailer

After graduating from Holmes, he went to Washington University as a pre-med student . After his football injury, he directed his attention more to the arts. The day after he graduated, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his film career where he spent most of his 20's. He spent two years living out of his suitcase, following the musicians around the world and going on tour with the orchestras. He said one of the major challenges to making Maestro was getting permission from all of the various agencies as he and the orchestra traveled the world.

“It has been a nightmare to get the permissions that we have, which is why there is not to my knowledge a comprehensive documentary of the world of classical music that is like this,” he said. “Just the challenge, logistically, of traveling with these people and getting the clearances and permissions and getting this level of exclusive access in itself, was a lot of work. It took quite some time to get this far. But we are very happy with it and I would love to get some people from Northern Kentucky to come and see it and show their support for the film and for what I believe is a very worthwhile mission.”

He will screen the film at over a dozen of college campuses this summer where students can ask him questions about the film and create a dialogue about the project.

“I'm hoping that somebody that is younger when they watch this film, that they see that these musicians are rock-stars, these guys are bad-asses. They travel around the world. They're very talented, they have these amazing life experiences, and they do the hard work and discipline that it takes,” Donnelly said. “Hopefully that will inspire some people to play more instruments and kind of see it in the more broader view. We've already gotten very positive feedback from the classical world, but ultimately this is aimed for people that might not have ever been to a concert before.”

He worries about the future of classical music and art in general and hopes to infuse his passion for the arts into the interest of others who may not have given it much thought.

“Classical music is very much in jeopardy right now. Overall, it's a very tumultuous time for the arts in general. So my passion is to create media that conveys the beauty of this stuff in a more contemporary light because that's where I feel it is really lacking.”

He also has other projects in the works that will follow the debut of Maestro. He is producing another documentary called Gabe that is a story of a kid that has muscular dystrophy, was diagnosed with the disease at a very young age and  told that he would only live to the age of 25. As the boy became older, his only goal was to get a college degree. He went to Washington University in St. Louis as well, and then the doctors told him that he had been misdiagnosed and that he would actually live into his 50's.

“We're capturing this beautiful story of this guy who gets a second chance at life and with no frame work of what to do with his life because he didn't think he was going to live this long,” Donnelly explained. “The same way that I would like to change people's perceptions of the world of classical music with the stereotypes and misconceptions, there are a lot of those same things that exist when it comes to people with disabilities and so what we would like to do is to make people think a little bit.”

His next directing project is a planned film about the illiteracy problem in the United States.

“It is going to take quite a bit of research and time, but I think that there is a real problem with kids, and adults as well, who are entering the workforce that are missing out on experiences of poetry and literature, simply because there are a lot of opportunities in social media right now to where you don't have to read to be able to function in the world that you did at some point. Especially with technology now with the way it is and the obstacle it presents. So what I would like to do is make a film that brings awareness for America's illiteracy problem and try to make reading cool. That ultimately would be the goal is to have a documentary about books and poetry but still be stimulating and cool and makes them want to pick up a book that same way Maestro gives them a chance to come to a concert.”

Donnelly said it is important that his work go beyond passively entertaining viewers.

“The projects that interest me the most have to do with them having a tangible result,” he said. “You go see a movie, for example and it's a great movie, what really happens? Most things you watch may not have an impact on your life, but if you watch Maestro, hopefully people might actually want to come to a concert and it creates some kind of call to action and that's the ultimate goal.

“It's very ambitious and maybe unrealistic but classical music only represents two to three percent of the music market place. That's a very small amount and we're not disillusion to think it's going to get to popular culture levels, but what if that number starts going up a little bit? What if it goes up a half of a percent? That's a lot of lives that are changed and are inspired by something and there's this whole world of music that exists that a lot of people I think would fall in love with it if they were exposed to it.”

Maestro will be have two screenings at Constella at the Cincinnati Art Museum on April 17 at 5:30 and again at 7:30. Seating is limited and tickets are $10. Tickets can be purchased at  Donnelly will be present at both screenings.

Written by Bryan Burke

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