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 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+