Founded in 1937 after a devastating flood and smaller in size than established orchestras like Cincinnati’s, it floundered looking for a sense of purpose. Then the city’s visionary mayor, an intellectual populist and true original named Charles Farnley, and conductor Robert Whitney hit on an original idea. They would commission new pieces from contemporary composers around the world and then perform (and often record) them.
The orchestra also worked directly with the great dance choreographer Martha Graham.
This was at a time when the major orchestras and their audiences were wary of New Music, with its overtones of hard-to-understand atonalism and serialism, so you’d imagine it would be a really tough sell in a neo-Southern Midwest city like Louisville. Yet, against the odds, it worked and became a rallying point for a city looking toward the future. And the U.S. government, eager to promote Louisville’s modernism to the world during the Cold War, arranged for Voice of America broadcasts.
This fine documentary, directed by Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiller and narrated by Will Oldham, tells the story of that exciting era in the city’s history. It includes interviews with some of the composers the orchestra worked with (Elliott Carter, Lukas Foss, Gunther Schuller and more), as well as the Louisville Courier-Journal critic taxed with learning New Music in order to review the performances.
There’s a wealth of archival footage, and the film also pauses for musical excerpts of some of the commissioned works accompanied by ruminative nature photography. There’s also a full bonus disc with extra interview footage. Through it all, Whitney and Farnley emerge as fascinating figures. Louisville was lucky to have them; one hopes the orchestra today will find comparable civic and musical leaders to help it revive. Grade: B+