The story of the Louisville Orchestra, and the role it played in distinguishing Louisville as a cultural center, is well known. After the Great Flood of 1937, highly sought after conductor Robert Whitney arrived in Louisville to build the orchestra. Despite the devastation left behind by the flood, an impending World War, and economic difficulties stemming from the great Depression, he joined with then-Mayor Charles Farnsley to achieve their shared vision of making Louisville one of the best known orchestras in the world. They did so by focusing on premiering new music, at one point nearly 50 pieces a year, which resulted in their recordings being heard around the world. It worked. The Louisville Orchestra eventually worked with virtually every living composer of note and famously hosted a delegation of Russian composers including Dmitri Shostakovich in 1959, not exactly an easy thing to do in the run-up to the Cold War. Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler depicted this transformation in “Music Makes A City”, a documentary about the period and Charles Farnsley. Farnsley, who also created the Fund For The Arts, deeply valued the contributions a thriving arts scene could make to the growth of the city. After a limited screening and DVD release, PBS is planning to air “Music Makes A City” nationally.
They may be airing it because the subject matter is relevant once again. As the Louisville Orchestra nears the completion of its first season since emerging from bankruptcy, they are among several orchestras that are either going through bankruptcy or near it, including Philadelphia and Indianapolis. Others have seen musician strikes over pay cuts and shortened seasons. Much like 1937, when the economy was still recovering from the effects of the Depression, the economic downturn has impacted donations and ticket sales.
It was against this backdrop that I attended my first Louisville Orchestra concert at Whitney Hall last Friday night. Cameras were there filming the crowd for footage to air before the movie (no air date was given), and the orchestra drew its largest crowd of the season. That can partially be attributed to the guest conductor, Ryan McAdams. Considered one of the most exciting young conductors in some time, McAdams is a Fulbright scholar and recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Emerging Conductor Award. A native of St. Louis, McAdam is the Music Director of the New York Youth Symphony and a popular guest conductor; recent appearances include the Israel Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic and future engagements with the Indianapolis Symphony and Opera Theater of St. Louis.
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