New Documentary Explores How Music ‘Made’ Louisville

BY Mike Melia  October 12, 2010 at 3:18 PM EST

In 1937, a young Robert Whitney arrived in Louisville, Ky. to take the helm of the city’s new orchestra. The Great Depression and a horrendous flood had devastated Louisville, but the people were determined to rebuild and the orchestra was a symbol of the city’s commitment to the arts.

But by the 1940s, the orchestra was struggling to stay open and it looked as if they would have to shut their doors. They moved to a smaller venue, and with the support of an idealistic and ambitious new mayor, Charles Farnsley, the Louisville Orchestra decided to try a novel strategy. The story of their ambitious plan is told in a new documentary, ‘Music Makes A City’.

Instead of paying a lot of money for famous soloists to visit and draw crowds, Farnsley and Whitney decided to get more bang for the buck by commissioning new works from the world’s greatest composers. The orchestra would perform the premieres, and the concert recordings would be sold to audiences around the globe.

“At the time, of course, it was shocking for New Yorkers to realize something like this was going on in Louisville, Ky., since they considered themselves at the center of it all,” said Jerome Hiler, co-director of the film.

Louisville’s approach worked, saving the orchestra and propelling their musicians to world recognition.

“The symphony orchestra defined what a great city should be about,” said Owsley Brown, also a co-director and native of Louisville.

Eventually, the orchestra received a large grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to keep up the work. They performed an unprecedented number of premieres, and the success of the orchestra contributed to the economic health of the city. General Electric and other companies moved to Louisville, citing the cultural life it offered for its employees.

Listen to a conversation with Jerome Hiler and Owsley Brown: