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A Struggling American City, Revived Through New Music

Watch an excerpt of Music Makes A City: An American Orchestra's Untold Story.

Let us set the scene: Already reeling from terrible economic hardships that have plagued the entire nation, and with the threat of yet another major war hovering on the horizon, an American city is suddenly besieged by rain. This isn't just any storm, but torrents and torrents of downpours that flood streets, houses and businesses. The rain ultimately forces about 175,000 residents from their homes and destroys the city's downtown to the tune of what today would be some $3.3 billion.

If the circumstances sound terribly familiar to us now, the way that this city brought itself back from the brink is most decidedly not: to remake itself into a cutting-edge cultural center, with new music at its very core.

The locale was Louisville, Kentucky, in 1937: a place that seemed unlikely, to say the least, to transform itself into an epicenter for contemporary composers' work. And yet, within less than two decades, that's precisely what Louisville became — in a drive that was spearheaded in large part by the city's mayor, Charles Farnsley, a man who proved to be forward-thinking in more ways than one.

This remarkable story is vividly told in the new documentary Music Makes A City. Directed by Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler and out on DVD this week, the film traces both the stories of the Louisville Orchestra and of Farnsley himself. In short order, and spurred by the Confucian idea that a city of high culture would attract wealth and power as well as prestige, Farnsley had created a community treasure chest for arts funding and corralled a promising young conductor, Robert Whitney. (Whitney was fresh from Serge Koussevitzky's conducting program at Tanglewood, where he had been in the same class as Leonard Bernstein.)

In another amazing turn, it was actually the politician, Farnsley, who cooked up the larger scheme to commission new works from America's leading composers. By his estimation, Louisville stood far more to gain this way than it would if it were to spend its funds on drawing starry soloists to the orchestra for what amounted to one-night stands. (Might there be a lesson in there for some of today's struggling arts presenters?)

Hardly daunted by the task he'd set for himself, Farnsley took a trip to New York to meet with Virgil Thomson, and in short order had made connections with such luminaries as Darius Milhaud, Roy Harris, Ned Rorem and David Diamond. But big dreams don't fly without finances, and by 1949 the orchestra needed at least $40,000 to keep afloat.

Again, the orchestra came up with an ambitious bid: to invite Martha Graham to create a new work with orchestra and music by a composer of her choice. The result was "Judith," with a William Schuman score, and Graham was so happy with the collaboration that she insisted that the piece and the Louisville Orchestra be featured at Carnegie Hall. And with that first visit to New York, the Louisville Orchestra cemented both its reputation and its financial footing.

Within a few years, and thanks to a 1953 grant for $500,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation, the musicians were commissioning nearly 50 new works a year — a feat that is still mind-boggling more than a half-century later. Their list of collaborators from the period form an absolute "who's who" list of major composers, from Chou Wen-chung to Elliott Carter. In all, the Louisville Orchestra has given some 400 world premieres of music of breathtaking range; many of those collaborations were recorded for the symphony's groundbreaking in-house label First Edition.

Meanwhile, Louisville's rise came in tandem with that of American art standing firmly on its own terms as a force in its own right, and not bowing as a secondary player to European tradition. That's not a subject much discussed in Music Makes A City, but it's important nonetheless.

Similarly, creating cultural propaganda for the Cold War was probably not at the forefront of any Louisvillian's mind, but in 1959, a delegation of Soviet artists including Dmitri Shostakovich and Dmitri Kabalevsky were shepherded to Louisville, a locale rather disingenuously presented to them as a "typical" American city whose populace was vitally interested in daring new art music.

The story of Music Makes A City shares is at once inspiring and, to be honest, kind of depressing. It's hard to imagine an American politician in 2011 making the performing arts a primary engine for serious economic growth — and just as difficult to envision a mainstream semi-professional orchestra making such a profound shift in its mission. But the tale is still stirring, not at least because of the visionaries — composers, performers and politicians alike — who made such a moment happen.

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  • Title: Music Makes A City
  • Director: Owsley Brown III & Jerome Hiler
 

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