Documentary Music Makes a City Tells the Story of the Louisville Orchestra

How Its Devotion to New Music Became an Inspiration to Arts Organizations Everywhere

Film's Premiere Set for May 20 in Louisville

At a time when arts organizations face extreme fiscal challenges, prudence would seem to dictate conservatism over innovation, following rather than leading. But the historical example of the Louisville Orchestra illustrates the inspirational opposite. The feature-length documentary film Music Makes a City: A Louisville Orchestra Story tells a tale of civic aspiration, cultural ingenuity, and how Louisville, Kentucky became the world's unlikely capital of new music in the 1950s: a spiritual home for composers from Hindemith to Henry Cowell, from Villa-Lobos to Elliott Carter.

Six years in the making, the absorbing Music Makes a City, which has its world premiere on May 20 in Louisville, is by co-directors Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler. Previously, Brown directed Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles, which won the Hamptons International Film Festival Best Documentary award and the IFP Independent Spirit award for best documentary in 2000.

Co-director/co-producer Owsley Brown, who was born and raised in Louisville, says: "There were big problems in orchestral life 50 years ago, and there are serious problems today – some the same, some very different. The question ‘are we relevant?’ was certainly heard then as it is now. Saving itself by taking intelligent risks and through good, old-fashioned American ingenuity, the Louisville Orchestra answered that question with a ‘yes’, and in a big way."

In 1948, the small, struggling, semi-professional orchestra in Louisville – its players with day jobs as teachers, insurance agents, plumbers – sought to find its way forward by setting itself apart. The Louisville Orchestra had a novel idea: instead of paying visiting star soloists to come play the warhorses, it would use its limited funds to commission new works. Louisville Mayor Charles Farnsley – an arts-enthused, Confucius-following character and indefatigable progressive who saw cultural achievement as part of good government – was the architect of this plan. With Farnsley's larger-than-life support, the Louisville Orchestra and its founder-conductor Robert Whitney began an ambitious project to commission new works from composers around the world, a project that grew and gained notice far beyond Kentucky.

The Rockefeller Foundation, in 1953, awarded its first grant to an arts organization: $400,000 to expand the Louisville Orchestra's commissioning project to an extraordinary 46 compositions a year for three years. Receiving a further $100,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1956, the orchestra was able not only to commission more works and premiere them in weekly concerts, but also to record them on LP for the orchestra's own First Edition label, selling the records by subscription.

The scope of the project astounded the international music scene. The records were sold throughout the world; Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcast the Louisville concerts around the globe. A delegation of Soviet composers, including Shostakovich, even visited Louisville in 1959 to see for themselves what this community of enterprising Americans was accomplishing. And culture could also attract commerce, as Farnsley predicted. When General Electric established a huge factory in the area, it cited as one of its primary reasons the quality of life for its 30,000 workers in Louisville, with local cultural attractions figuring prominently in that rating.

The roster of composers who had works commissioned, premiered and recorded by the Louisville Orchestra over the decades reads like a Who's Who of 20th-century music: from such international names as Paul Hindemith, Artur Honegger, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Bohuslav Martinu, Darius Milhaud, Gian Francesco Malipiero and Chou Wen-chung to Americans Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Virgil Thomson, William Schuman, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, Alan Hovahness, Wallingford Riegger, David Diamond, Norman Della Joio, Vincent Persichetti, Lukas Foss, Harold Shapero, Gunther Schuller, Ned Rorem, William Bolcom, Joan Tower and Elliott Carter. An unprecedented project at the time, it's a cultural legacy still unmatched today.

Music Makes a City is a wonderful weave of archival footage and on-camera anecdotes from veteran Louisville musicians, civic figures, and several of the composers on the above list – including Foss, Schuller, Rorem, Shapero, Wen-chung and Elliott Carter, who gave an extensive interview last year for the film (at the age of 100), recalling his experience composing for Louisville a piece that remains one of his most popular: 1955's Variations for Orchestra.

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