‘That Higher Level’ A Documentary of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada

Photo copyright Kevin Kelly, courtesy NFB Mediaspace

The National Film Board of Canada has big plans of demonstrating with this new film documentary to any musician that achieving That Higher Level is possible. In 2017, the National Youth Orchestra of Canada (NYO) performed cross country, and the ensuing documentary looks behind the scenes at how this particular ensemble got there. Almost every year, the program undergoes personnel changes.

This work is inspirational. It’s not only an achievement getting a 75-minute presentation made out of hundreds of hours of footage but the result is a very encouraging work which stays positive throughout. This organization gives young musicians a chance to play in the big leagues. Like forming a rock band, auditions are required to get in, once you’re in, you are part of a powerful network. Friendships are made and lessons become meaningful and introspective; the impact lasts for a musicians’ entire career.

Putting in hours of practice is often not enough. Having that mental acuity to handle yourself under pressure and achieving what the composer had in mind are also important. One powerful example: Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration is not simply a score to master technically. How the NYO prepares for and achieves a memorable performance of this complex, demanding composition is the highlight of this documentary.

Filmmaker John Bolton (Aim for the Roses) chronicles the journey of how the lives of the performers and classical music come together. It’s a soulful endeavour. His production team saw them at practice and followed them on tour. By splitting the story into specific units, namely in spotlighting each section of the orchestra and a specific talent, what we hear are parts of instead of the whole. Within these sections are interviews with the youths. Hearing their individual motivations that shaped their particular choice instrument to play (be it an oboe or violin), and wanting to be part of the NYO defines part of the work. Their dedication is very evident and to see them in a happy community that shows them as well-adjusted adults. A few rivalries are hinted at, and Bolton spins a positive note in how they are resolved. It’s better to have a colleague win a position in a professional gig than an unknown.

Sometimes being a musician means having a love which transcends both the instrument they chose to play, or even the style of music they are passionate about. That view of musicianship is much different than that on display in Music from the Inside Out, a 2004 documentary that explored what music means to each talent performing at The Philadelphia Orchestra and their goals to achieve personal expression. That Higher Level takes the time to explore longer musical performances, consequently revealing the transformative power of the collective over that of the individual.

A few more film festival screenings are scheduled for the year (this work debuted at the 2019 Victoria Film Festival) before plans are firmed up for where this inspiring documentary will head next. One of the NFB’s goals is to have screenings in the education system.

Here is a video link for your viewing and auditory pleasure:

https://mediaspace.nfb.ca/epk/that-higher-level/