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'Music Makes a City': A film about a little orchestra that could

September 21, 2010 |  1:13 pm

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 flood 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 high-brow, 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 the likes of 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."

LouisvilleThough 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 Wen-chung, Harold Shapero and others. (Joan Tower appears only on the DVD, due out in October, which will include over 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 71 salaried 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," he said. "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," he said. "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

-- Rick Schultz

Photo: The Louisville Orchestra on the way to New York City in 1950. Credit: Louisville Orchestra

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