About us / Contact

The Classical Music Network

New York

Europe : Paris, Londn, Zurich, Geneva, Strasbourg, Bruxelles, Gent
America : New York, San Francisco, Montreal                       WORLD

Your email :



Music Makes a City

New York
Quad Cinema, 32 West 13th Street
09/17/2010 -  
Music Makes a City
Musical excerpts and interviews by Virgil Thomson, Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, Paul Hindemith, Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Lukas Foss, Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, Chou-Wen Chung, Norman Dello Joio, Harold Shapero, Martha Graham, Gunther Schuller, Jorge Mester, etc, etc.

Owsley Brown III (Co-director, co-producer), Jerome Hilier (Co-director, co-director of photography, writer), Marcel Cabrera (Co-director of photographer), Will Oldham (Narrator)

R. Whitney and Orchestra, 1952 (© Louisville Orchestra)

Alex Ross’s exhaustive study of 20th Century music, The Rest Is Music, inexplicably gives but a passing reference to the Louisville Orchestra. Yet this small but powerful ensemble, which started in 1937 and is still going (not going strong, but going.) In fact, this was one of the most powerful forces for broadcasting, commissioning and recording 20th Century composers from around the world. While RCA and the Metropolitan Opera popularized 19th Century standbys and put an electronic halo around Toscanini, the expanded chamber orchestra on the banks of the Ohio River gave contemporary music a shot in the arm, and living composers money to live on.

It was a unique story for a unique mid-American town. And now its creation and influence–which includes Confucius, Martha Graham, an idealist politician and a Jewish department-store owner–has been finally told in a new documentary.

The co-director of Music Makes a City, Owsley Brown III, made only one previous film, about Paul Bowles. Raised in Louisville, Mr. Brown obviously could have mythologized the story. At the start, showing the Katrina-style floods of 1937, he almost did that, by speaking of the “great spirit of all the people”, but after that, the story takes on a myth of its own.

The Jehovah and Zeus of the myth were Dann Byck, a department store owner who financed a local amateur orchestra, and Charles Farnsley, the frighteningly tall Mayor of Louisville, who not only loved classical music, but was a most unlikely follower of Confucius The Confucian credo, “A town with arts and happy people will become rich”, Mayor Farnsley picked up a young conductor in Chicago, the unassuming Robert Whitney, and Whitney managed to mold the orchestra into a fairly decent ensemble.

This, though, could have been repeated in many larger American towns. The secret came in 1948, when the orchestra was going broke. That’s when Whitney made the last-ditch decision to commission and play modern music.

And that is when Music Makes A City becomes truly interesting. Over the years, the Louisville Orchestra has given over a thousand world premieres and commissioned 400 works. But this was hardly easy. Some of the interviewees admitted they had to shut their ears when those ”awful” sounds came on. But the composers loved it.

And rare is the movie which interviews so many composers. Elliott Carter speaks of the challenges where brass overwhelmed strings, in his Variations. Harold Shapero speaks of the joy in writing here., and Chou-wen Chung is influenced by his Chinese childhood to write And the Petals Fall.

“After the concert,” he says, “I saw a woman coming directly to me, and I thought she was going to hit me. Instead, she told me, “That was poetry.!’”

All was not smooth with the orchestra. The McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s spooked composers, some of whom left America. Financing was always a problem, and the orchestra sometimes had to play without money. (The Rockefeller Foundation gave over $400,000 in grants to produce modern music.) Then too, while Mr. Whitney was undeniably a splendid and imaginative conductor, he was hardly au courant with the competing Schoenberg school, and confined himself mainly to the Stravinsky/Boulanger heirs.

Roadside billboard, 1954 (© Robert Steinau/Louisville Courier-Journal)

On the other hand, Americans confined to the batons of Ormandy, Munch and Toscanini, fine as they were, now could hear a bit of their own from “middle America”. Louisville, said, a resident, was the right size. Not too big or too small, diverse, and yes, civic-minded.

Such was the fame of the Orchestra that when the delegation of Soviet composers came to America, they insisted on visiting Louisville. Yes, Shostakovich was dour, and nobody was speaking English, but it was an honor. (Mr. Ross does put that questionable visit in context in his book.)

Most important, younger listeners like myself, already weary of the same “classical” music on discs, found names like Villa-Lobos, Milhaud, Sessions and Carter, Dello Joio (who composed Saint Joan for Martha Graham who appeared in Louisville).

Mr. Brown, a scion of a Louisville industrial family has a large tapestry and a host of rare photos and interviews. In fact, having been to Louisville several times (mainly to write stories about their Bourbon distilleries), I never quite got the right story on its beginnings and its place in the center of modern music. That part has been rectified here.

The story is a fast-moving one, but three musical interludes seem somehow wrong. Works by Malipiero, Carter and Chung are complex in themselves. Playing them against the same grasses waving in the winds, the same tides of the Ohio River and the same flocks of birds, does not enhance the music or the film. Perhaps they could have gone low-brow and performed Milhaud’s Kentuckiana, which includes two-dozen Kentucky folk-songs in about six minutes.

When Robert Whitney finally retired, after a concert with Rostropovich, his place was taken by the equally imaginary Jorge Mester. But the spirit had gone out now. Mester was replaced by others (although he has returned as conductor of the orchestra today), but little money has been given for modern music.

The audience has diminished, the Louisville Orchestra plays mainly for the local ballet and opera companies, but the recordings are re-issued .

Still, the influence has continued. Mayor Farnsley in Congress, sponsored important National Endowment of the Arts bill. Most important, Louisville, a quiet southern town known more for horses, baseball bats and Bourbon, became America’s Renaissance Florence, while a seven-foot Sinophile politician became its Lorenzo de’ Medici.

A tale suitably tall, and implausibly engaging.

Harry Rolnick



Copyright ©ConcertoNet.com