To appropriate shamelessly from Jane Austen, it “is a truth universally acknowledged” that any would-be composer must be in want of performers for the fruits of his/her labors. Often such a composer can only draw upon his/her own resources, but this leads to a limited repertoire of solo compositions. One can also turn to the advanced technologies of sound synthesis, but the strict reproducibility of the result hardly counts as performance. Thus, the playing field quickly reduces to a privileged few associated with conservatories or universities at which students can draw upon the skills of other students.
This, however, merely recognizes the narrowness of the premise “truth.” If one works only with those closest to one’s own interest, the risk will be a result that, as Anna Russell put it, is the effort of a “great expert, primarily for the edification of other great experts.” Because music has a “social dimension” that extends beyond the objectivity of score pages or the subjectivity of “self-expression,” music without a general audience is the moral equivalent of a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it. These days there are many opportunities for concert-goers to experience the efforts of new generations of composers; but it was not that long ago that “emerging composers” faced intimidating odds against their music ever received truly public exposure.
In this rather bleak situation after the Second World War, one American city made a commitment to establish itself as a venue for such composers. The very idea was the brainchild of the city’s mayor, Charles Farnsley; and the city was Louisville, Kentucky. In 1948 Farnsley and Robert Whitney, conductor of the Louisville Orchestra (recruited personally by Farnsley in 1937), determined that the city’s orchestra would build a repertoire based on commissions for original compositions. Thanks to Farnsley’s skills in promoting both funding and audience interest and Whitney’s skills at taking on just about any piece of new music presented to him, during the second half of the twentieth century no American ensemble was responsible for giving more public exposure to new music than the Louisville Orchestra; and the uniqueness of the city’s orchestra became a major source of civic pride for its residents.
The story of how all this came to pass deserves to be told; and the “origins” portion of that story became the master’s thesis of Carole C. Birkhead, which was approved by the Department of Music History of the University of Louisville on May 2, 1977. Birkhead’s thesis, “The History of the Orchestra in Louisville,” has now be fleshed out and brought up to date in a documentary released today on DVD, Music Makes a City. Because there is very little filmed footage of the ensemble itself, the documentary relies heavily on the “talking heads” of composers who benefited from the orchestra’s mission, as well as the impressions of many who performed the music or sat in the audience to hear it performed. All that material has been impeccably arranged by directors Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler into a thoroughly absorbing account of one of the most important episodes in recent music history.
Furthermore, for those interested in leaning more, Music Makes a City has been released as a set of two DVDs. The first is the documentary itself. However, the source interviews may viewed at greater length on a second “Special Features” disc. The documentary itself is wisely kept to a running time of about 100 minutes, cast by the directors as a narrative than never has a dull moment. The “Special Features” disc provides the opportunity to hear what else many of the contributors had to say; and it is bound to make for some delightful sampling after one has absorbed the basic narrative.