Ris­ing from the flood

Doc­u­men­tary tracks Louisville Or­ches­tra’s growth from dis­as­ter to vi­tal arts group.

Los Angeles Times - - Style & Culture - Rick Schultz cal­en­dar@latimes.com

In “Mu­sic Makes a City,” a fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary open­ing on Fri­day, co-di­rec­tors Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler of­fer a stir­ring an­ti­dote to all the neg­a­tive news about strug­gling Amer­i­can orches­tras.

The doc­u­men­tary tells the dra­matic and sur­pris­ing story of the Louisville Or­ches­tra, which earned in­ter­na­tional promi­nence by be­com­ing the cap­i­tal of new mu­sic in the 1950s. The long list of works heard in the film were ei­ther com­mis­sions or pre­mieres recorded by the Louisville Or­ches­tra.

It’s also the story of two men, con­duc­tor Robert Whit­ney and Mayor Charles Farns­ley, who helped re­vi­tal­ize and trans­form a city that had been hard hit by a dev­as­tat­ing 9 in 1937.

Whit­ney ar­rived fresh from Serge Kous­se­vitzky’s con­duct­ing class, where his class­mate was Leonard Bern­stein, to find an or­ches­tra with only a few pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians and no horn sec­tion or bas­soon­ist.

When Farns­ley, an un­ex­pect­edly en­gag­ing mix of pop­ulist and high­brow, be­came mayor in 1948, he helped trans­form the Louisville Or­ches­tra and the city. At the height of its fame, the Louisville Or­ches­tra was vis­ited by Martha Gra­ham and Dmitri Shostakovich.

“I’m a ben­e­fi­ciary two gen­er­a­tions later of the world cre­ated by Charles Farns­ley and Robert Whit­ney,” said Brown, 40, whose pre­vi­ous doc­u­men­tary was “Night Waltz: The Mu­sic of Paul Bowles.”

Brown, a Louisville na­tive (his par­ents live in the house Supreme Court Jus­tice Louis Bran­deis was raised in), orig­i­nally told Hiler the story would make a good book. But Hiler, 67, con­vinced him it was a movie.

“This story couldn’t have been told com­pletely with­out peo­ple hear­ing the mu­sic,” Hiler said. “That’s why we stop the ac­tion for mu­sic se­quences. But the mu­sic is there all along — it’s the heart­beat of the film.”

Though the film­mak­ers agreed the movie is ul­ti­mately about the sound­track, Hiler said there were still some ar­gu­ments about how to han­dle the slower pace it cre­ated.

There was talk about putting “teasers” at the be­gin­ning of the film, he said, but “that’s the kind of thing you do on tele­vi­sion: ‘Don’t leave your seat, folks.’ I’m a be­liever in let­ting things un­fold. It’s old-fash­ioned, but I trust the au­di­ence.”

For Brown, the Louisville story is also about how “amaz­ing stuff can hap­pen.”

“Af­ter the Louisville flood, there was this spirit that cre­ated mo­men­tum,” he said. “Sud­denly, all these good things started to hap­pen.”

Along with fas­ci­nat­ing archival footage, the film uses talk­ing heads, but what heads: Gunther Schuller, El­liott Carter ( just af­ter his 100th birth­day, though he looks younger), Ned Rorem, Lukas Foss, Chou Wenchung, Harold Shap­ero and oth­ers. (Joan Tower ap­pears only on the DVD, due out in Oc­to­ber, which will in­clude more than two hours of ex­tra in­ter­view footage.)

For the cur­rent chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Louisville Or­ches­tra, Robert Bir­man, the story of “Mu­sic Makes a City” is as much about civic lead­er­ship as it is about clas­si­cal and con­tem­po­rary mu­sic.

“The film res­onates on so many lev­els,” he said. “Coin­ci­den­tally, there’s a mayor’s race go­ing on now in Louisville, so there’s a fas­ci­nat­ing com­ing to­gether of all these sto­ries at a re­ally timely moment.”

The Louisville Or­ches­tra cur­rently em­ploys 71salaried play­ers for 37 weeks. Jorge Mester, the or­ches­tra’s mu­sic di­rec­tor from 1967 to 1979, was reen­gaged in 2006, when the or­ches­tra was on the verge of bank­ruptcy. His con­tract runs through 2013. (In May, Mester left his post as mu­sic di­rec­tor of the Pasadena Sym­phony af­ter 25 years.)

Bir­man said most Amer­i­can orches­tras are strug­gling fi­nan­cially to stay afloat. “The film em­bod­ies part of the so­lu­tion for to­day. You have to have some­thing new and vi­sion­ary to hang your hat on.”

Yet Bir­man is wary of do­ing it the old Louisville way. “What is so in­ter­est­ing about the story from my per­spec­tive is that the suc­cess of that project is ul­ti­mately what killed it. Forty-six com­mis­sions for new mu­sic a year is ex­tra­or­di­nary, but you know what? The pub­lic ac­tu­ally doesn’t want that much.”

The cur­rent Louisville Or­ches­tra con­cert sea­son is ded­i­cated to the con­cept of “Mu­sic Makes a City.”

“It’s 100% gen­er­ated from the film,” Bir­man said. “We’re try­ing to show how a com­mis­sioner, com­poser, or­ches­tra and con­duc­tor de­fine their city through mu­sic. This isn’t just a Louisville story. Mu­sic has de­fined cities all over the world.”

For Hiler, how­ever, the doc­u­men­tary is meant as a per­sonal chal­lenge to “seize the moment of your time.

“I would like to in­spire peo­ple to pur­sue their loves,” he said. “That’s one of the ideas in the film. Farns­ley, Whit­ney and all the mu­si­cians — ev­ery­body was pitch­ing in, pur­su­ing their loves.”

“Mu­sic Makes a City” opens Fri­day at the Sun­set 5 Cin­ema in West Hollywood.

Louisville Or­ches­tra

THE PLAY­ERS: The Louisville Or­ches­tra poses for a photo in 1950 be­fore head­ing to New York City.

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