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“Music Makes a City” comes to New York, Sept 17

Shortly after viewing Music Makes a City at a recent private screening in New York, Musical America’s Sedgwick Clark wrote: “Anyone interested in classical music should see this uplifting story of American ingenuity at its best.” This September, New Yorkers will have a chance to see this “tale of artistic vision” (Symphony) at the Quad Cinema (Sept 17 – 24).

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 success of the inspirational opposite. The feature-length documentary film Music Makes a City 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.

Music Makes a City is a wonderful weave of archival footage and anecdotes from veteran Louisville musicians and civic figures. The film features interviews with some of the project’s key participants: iconic American composers Ned Rorem, Lukas Foss, Chou Wen-chung, Harold Shapero, and Elliott Carter – the last of whom gave an extensive interview last year (at the age of 100) expressly for the documentary, recalling his experience of composing for Louisville a piece that remains one of his most popular: 1955’s Variations for Orchestra.

Six years in the making, the absorbing Music Makes a City, which had its world premiere in May in Louisville, is directed by 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 are 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 employed in day jobs as teachers, insurance agents, and 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.

In 1953 the Rockefeller Foundation 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.

“Elliott protested repeatedly that he wouldn’t remember anything about those days a half-century ago, but once we turned the camera on, he was fantastic,” says co-director Jerome Hiler. “We were only supposed to have 25 minutes, but he talked and talked for 40 minutes; his publisher’s representative said it was the best interview he had done in years. When the DVD comes out, people will be able to see more of that interview in the extras – it’s important.”

In-depth stories of signature Louisville pieces are told, a good example of which is William Schuman’s ballet score for Martha Graham, Judith. Whitney and the 50-piece Louisville Orchestra traveled to New York in 1950 to perform Judith at Carnegie Hall, along with Martinu’s Intermezzo and pieces by Virgil Thomson, David Diamond and Claude Almand. It was a galvanizing experience for the Louisville musicians and their project.

In his New York Times review of the event, Olin Downes recognized the challenge that the Louisville ensemble was raising and meeting: “The orchestra addressed itself intrepidly to this modern and difficult music, under the zealous direction of Mr. Whitney. It is not a small thing for a young American conductor to face the technical and interpretive problems these scores present and give the music such earnest, sincere performance. . . The way in which living composers are to be developed is by performing their music. Therefore, laurels are due to this orchestra and its leader for these admirable efforts.”

It was vital to Hiler and Brown that both the music and the city themselves were integral characters in Music Makes a City. Beautiful images of Louisville, the Ohio River and other natural settings are matched evocatively to passages from First Edition recordings of pieces by the likes of Malipiero, Hindemith and Carter. Hiler’s favorite sequence features Carter’s Variations for Orchestra sounding out over shots of a ferry on the water and trees casting shadows over tall bluegrass: “When the trombones come in, it makes it seem as if the shadows are like animals rustling for something in the grass.”

In the film, composer Chou Wen-chung – a protégé of Edgard Varèse and teacher to Tan Dun and Bright Sheng – points out that “all great societies have a group of people who take it upon themselves to curate the culture of their time.” With Music Makes a City, we’re reminded of a past American generation’s brave devotion to contemporary art. Hiler says: “People tend to forget these things, especially these days. But it’s good to remember what those before us were able to accomplish. The Louisville Orchestra story should spur us into trying something crazy on behalf of something that we love; you never know how many people will catch on.”

Brown adds: “Are the lessons from Louisville directly applicable to arts organizations today? Maybe so. And the lessons are inspirational too! This story reminds us that we can overcome huge obstacles and create wonderful things along the way.”


Sept 17 – 24 
Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th St, New York City 
DIRECTORS: Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler
PRODUCERS: Owsley Brown III and Robin Burke
CO-PRODUCERS: Cornelia Calder and Anne Flatté
EDITORS: Anne Flatté and Nathaniel Dorsky

Please check web site for show times:

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© 21C Media Group, July 2010

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