MUSIC MAKES A CITY: An American Orchestra’s Untold Story.

by Walter Simmons



MUSIC MAKES A CITY: An American Orchestra’s Untold Story ● Owsley Brown III, Jerome Hiler, directors ● 21C MEDIA GROUP (DVD: 1:43)
Additional DVD with more than two hours of interviews with composers, musicians, and related personalities

Dedicated enthusiasts with at least a modicum of interest in American music who were listening actively during the 1950s and 60s are no doubt familiar with the contributions made by the Louisville Orchestra. Others’ awareness may be somewhat more vague, or even non-existent. I discovered the Louisville series of recordings, and became a subscriber to their bi-monthly releases in 1960, when I was in my early teens. So I can say unequivocally that the blazing explosion of interest in 20th-century music that I experienced—American in particular—was fueled by the Louisville recording project. For me this leisurely-paced documentary recounting just how all this came about—virtually unthinkable today—was irresistibly fascinating. And if it had been twice as long and twice as detailed, I would have been just as happy.

The narrative, enriched by interviews with some of the composers, musicians, and local figures who were involved at the time, and accompanied by a soundtrack consisting exclusively of music recorded by the orchestra, and by documentary footage as well as more recent, impressionistically related photography of the general locale, is spellbinding. The story begins with a general history of Louisville, and the devastating flood that nearly destroyed the city completely during the Great Depression. This catastrophe ignited a sense of unity and solidarity among the citizenry that was an essential element in the catalysation of what followed. In 1938, the year after the flood, a group of community leaders formed the Louisville Civic Orchestra. Invited to pull together this ragtag assortment of random instrumentalists—mostly undisciplined amateurs—was the young and inexperienced conductor Robert Whitney, who had no idea what he was getting himself into. Before he could undertake anything like a concert season he had to actually create an orchestra with the basic complement of instruments. The orchestra struggled, on the brink of collapse, for its first ten years of existence.

But in 1948 an exceedingly remarkable individual named Charles Farnsley was elected mayor of Louisville. A follower of Confucius, a proud champion of the Confederacy while a trail-blazer in promoting racial integration, and a glad-handed extrovert, Farnsley was a member of that distinguished fraternity of eccentric visionaries without which our culture would be a good deal poorer. He happened to have a passion for contemporary classical music, and decided that one way for the orchestra to build a local constituency, as well as a broader reputation, was for it to specialize in the performance of new compositions (can you believe it?). (It may occur to some who follow the American orchestral scene that Albany’s Peter Kermani is something of a latter-day incarnation of Farnsley). Farnsley galvanized the enthusiasm of conductor Whitney, as well as that of many of the leaders of the Louisville community, and the plan was implemented. However, the orchestra continued to struggle financially. In 1949 a composition was commissioned from William Schuman, which was to be choreographed and danced as a solo work by the world-famous Martha Graham. By the time that premiere was to take place the funding stream had dried up to the point where there was no money to pay the orchestra. Convinced that this event—with Martha Graham performing in Louisville—would bring the ensemble to national attention, Whitney persuaded the musicians to perform that concert for free. The work was Judith—arguably Schuman’s masterpiece—and Whitney’s prediction paid off. Notables attended the event from all over the country, the work was received with extraordinary enthusiasm, and the orchestra was invited to perform it at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

The Louisville Orchestra had garnered the national attention it had been seeking. The sensation thus created provided the necessary impetus for Farnsley to go to the Rockefeller Foundation with an even more ambitious plan: a project to commission leading American composers of all stylistic persuasions to write works for the orchestra, which would then record these works and make them available to the general public by subscription. The Rockefeller Foundation rewarded Farnsley’s efforts with a three-year grant of $400,000. Among the fruits of this project were a number of works that are true masterpieces of American orchestral music: In addition to Schuman’s Judith, which had preceded the grant, there were Vincent Persichetti’s Symphony for Strings and Peter Mennin’s Symphony No. 6—both among the greatest American symphonies to this day. Not only did the recording project spread the reputation of the orchestra throughout the country, but the recordings were broadcast overseas via the Voice of America, providing international exposure as well. However, all was not smooth sailing for the orchestra. The investigations undertaken by the House Un-American Activities Commission into the political backgrounds of composers during the McCarthy period dealt a severe blow to the orchestra, as did the increasingly antagonistic relationships among proponents of competing approaches to contemporary musical composition. On the other hand, the orchestra made a tremendous impact on music education in Louisville, and on the city’s cultural life in general. A sense of pride developed, along with a true cultural and intellectual vitality, throughout the city. When Soviet composers came to the United States on an official visit, they asked to be taken to Louisville.

During the years that followed, the commissioning project was replaced by a program of first recordings. Robert Whitney retired in 1966, and the program’s sense of mission began to dissipate. Most recently the orchestra has suffered as a result of union disputes and financial problems in general, although just a week ago, as I write, an agreement was reached that will save the orchestra’s 2012-13 season.

The foregoing account is just a brief overview. Space does not permit more details, nor do I wish to spoil the fun for potential viewers. But if you have read this far, I think you may enjoy the entire documentary, enlivened by comments from the likes of Elliott Carter, Harold Shapero, Chou Wen-chung, Joan Tower, Gunther Schuller, Lukas Foss, and Norman Dello Joio (the latter two having died since the interviews were recorded), as well as from others associated with the orchestra and the community at the time.

In addition to the documentary, the package includes a handsome booklet with short essays discussing the creation of the film; there is also an additional DVD with extended excerpts from the interviews with the aforementioned distinguished personages. I can imagine that when the idea for this documentary was hatched, the producers realized that they had to act quickly, as the actual participants in the story were rapidly dying off. The interviews seem to have been undertaken around 2006-08. With some exceptions, those interviewed were in their 80s and 90s. My own greatest regret is that so many of the best composers commissioned by the orchestra were no longer alive at the time the interviews were done. William Mootz, music critic of the Louisville Courier-Journal during the orchestra’s heyday, offers priceless recollections recounted with vivid animation. The booklet informs us that he was seriously ill at the time, and was made presentable for the interviews, but passed away shortly afterward. Community leader Curtis Dewees speaks eloquently about the impact of the orchestra on the city’s cultural life during the 1950s and 60s. And Jorge Mester, who succeeded Robert Whitney as conductor, discusses the difficulty he faced in selecting repertoire to record. He was aided in this, he says, by gaining access to an enormous collection of recordings amassed by “someone named Paul Snook” [of Fanfare fame]. Of considerable assistance to the producers was a doctoral dissertation written by Sandra Fralin, entitled The Role of the Louisville Orchestra in the Fostering of New Music, 1947-1997.

America’s cultural life can often seem depressing: the pandering to the lowest common denominator in an endless quest for ever-bigger profits, the elimination of music education from so many public school curricula, the rejection of anything smacking of “elitism,” the vulgar attempts to sell classical music by marketing musicians as “show-biz celebrities.” The Louisville Orchestra, a product of America’s mid-western heartland, demonstrated how a dedicated commitment to a noble vision could actually succeed on an international scale.