New feature-length documentary charting the inspirational story of the Louisville Orchestra and its championing of new music

“In striking synchronicity, a mayor, a conductor and a robust post-war generation of composers intersected to make the city a hub for visionary composition.” (Andy Webster, New York Times).

The new feature-length documentary film Music Makes a City: A Louisville Orchestra Story is released in the UK on 1 November 2011. Music Makes a City tells a story of civic aspiration, artistic 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, Villa-Lobos to Elliott Carter.

The film begins with archival footage of the city’s major flood of 1937 which was so severe that abandoning the city was seriously considered. At the time, the Louisville Orchestra was little more than a fledgling amateur band. The city’s charismatic arts enthusiast Mayor Charles Farnsley felt that a city’s orchestra was central to its cultural well-being, and that composers were the source of musical life, so that investing in new music was viewed as bringing distinctive cultural and civic regeneration to the city.

Working with the Orchestra’s founder-conductor Robert Whitney in 1948, Farnsley decided to commission 52 new works a year for three years, to be performed in weekly concerts alongside traditional repertoire, and recorded for sale by subscription. This vision would go on to represent an enduring model for new music commissioning. By 1953, aided by the first ever grant for the arts from the Rockerfeller Foundation, Farnsley had transformed this ‘local band’ of musicians, into a unique, world-famous orchestra.

These new commissions would be broadcast around the world by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. In 1959 a delegation of Soviet composers including Shostakovich and Kabalevsky insisted on visiting Louisville during their US trip. Just as Farnsley had predicted, as the orchestra’s reputation grew, so did the cultural and economic wealth of Louisville, which came to represent a beacon of economic growth through cultural daring in the ‘free world’.

Composers commissioned and recorded by the Louisville Orchestra over the decades read like a ‘Who's Who’ of 20th-century music – including Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and Paul Hindemith. Elliott Carter gives an extensive interview for the film (at the age of 100), recalling his experience composing his Variations for Orchestra. Acclaimed choreographer Martha Graham’s close relationship with the Orchestra is shown in illuminating detail – the 50-piece Louisville Orchestra and Graham travelled to New York in 1950 to perform Judith at Carnegie Hall, William Schuman's commissioned ballet score.

Narrated by Louisville native Will Oldham (‘Bonnie Prince Billy’), the film uses a mix of archival footage and on-camera anecdotes from veteran Louisville musicians, civic figures, and composers.

“Anyone interested in classical music should see this uplifting story of American ingenuity at its best.” (Sedgwick Clark, MusicalAmerica.com)

Co-director/co-producer Owsley Brown asks whether the Louisville Orchestra story is relevant to the crises facing cultural organisations today: "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." “Illuminating... Evocative... captures a region and music engaged in harmonious, dynamic interplay.” (Nick Schrager, Village Voice)

 

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