Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Vision of History-Making Music-Making

No one can say what a beautiful piece of music
means but we know it's beautiful.
~ Composer Norman Dello Joio

If you were asked to name the world's top orchestras in the late 1940s and early 1950s, would Louisville Orchestra come to mind?

In 1948, Louisville Orchestra was small, semi-professional, virtually financially destitute. What it had going for it — what many  orchestras even today lack — was the support of local politicians and civic leaders. The Kentucky city's future-oriented, arts-loving mayor, Charles Farnsley, said to be never at a loss for ideas, decided the way the orchestra would make it, and leave a lasting mark on the cultural landscape over which he presided, was by commissioning work from contemporary composers. Indefatigable orchestra conductor Robert Whitney couldn't say no. Thus was the Commissioning Project born. It became more than the visionary mayor or anyone else in Louisville at the time might have thought possible. The city became the "home of new music" and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

In 1953, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded Louisville Orchestra a $400,000 grant to commission a composition a week — 52 a year! — for three years, with each new work to be performed in weekly concerts and also recorded and sold by subscription (First Edition Records became the orchestra's label). With that kind of money, Whitney set about commissioning pieces from the likes of Virgil Thomson, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, Ned Rorem, Norman Dello Joio, and other extraordinary composers. Twice, he commissioned the great Martha Graham to perform solo with the orchestra to music of composers of her choice.

The rather unlikely but wholly inspirational story of how a city mayor, a conductor, a single orchestra, and some of the world's greatest composers came to share a vision of history-making music-making is told in the feature-length (90-minute) documentary Music Makes a City, produced by Louisville filmmaker Owsley Brown III and Robin Burke and directed by Brown and Jerome Hiler. Immediately below is a trailer for the film, which took six years to make.

Music Makes A City Trailer from Jason Weinberger on Vimeo.


21C Media Group Video on FaceBook: Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler Discuss Music Makes a City

WFPL Radio Show on Music Makes a City

"After the Flood" in Listen: Life with Classical Music, Fall 2010

Art of the States: Louisville Orchestra, Hyperlinked List of Works by Henry Cowell, Ned Rorem, and Other Composers Performed by the Orchestra


Kathleen said...

What a thrill. I will seek this one out, and thanks again for all the neat info. (Loved reading about Felicities, too!)

S. Etole said...

There's a good deal to be said for vision and determination.

Cassandra Frear said...

What a great quote to lead off with. And it's so true, we know it's beautiful when we hear it.

I really enjoy music history. When I was homeschooling my sons, we studied the music for each period of history we covered. We also did some music history courses. It's a fascinating topic.

Joyceann Wycoff said...

Maureen ... what would I ever do without you? Great story. I have to find this movie.

A. Jay Adler said...

What a remarkable story of creative ambition in seemingly unlikely circumstances. What a trove of composers and modern American music. It's a tonic in the current atmosphere.