Having many times been in Kentucky Center's Robert Whitney Hall for orchestra, opera, and other musical performances, I confess that I've never really known much about its namesake. And, as a transplanted Louisvillian, my grasp of the city's history is still imperfect, if not completely lacking in some aspects. Both of these gaps have been repaired a great deal by watching the documentary feature Music Makes a City: A Louisville Orchestra Story, directed by Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler.
In telling the remarkable history of the Louisville Orchestra  and its place in the world of contemporary music, the documentary -- narrated by Louisville actor and musician Will Oldham -- also offers the viewer a generous slice of the city's broader history, particularly from the period of the great 1937 flood through the 1950s. Even for those who don't consider themselves to be particular fans of classical music and who may have never attended a single Louisville Orchestra concert, the film will reward viewers who enjoy seeing their city lovingly represented through good storytelling and rarely seen vintage footage and archival stills.
Following the Depression and the devastation of the 1937 flood, Louisville's future mayor Charles Farnsley had an innovative and unlikely idea -- that the way to build up a city and attract people to it was through its arts and culture. The grand experiment that he helped marshal into being was the creation of a Louisville Philharmonic Orchestra.
From the recruitment of its thirty-three-year old conductor Robert Whitney of Chicago, through its formative days of finding enough musicians and a place to play, the Louisville Civic Orchestra, as it was first known, struggled through some humble beginnings. Plagued by financial deficits that threatened its existence, another even more innovative idea was born in 1948 in hopes of alleviating the crisis.
Instead of paying for well-known guest musicians to come and play with the orchestra (and attract concert-goers), the Louisville Orchestra would commission composers to write brand new pieces and invite them to come and conduct their own works. It was a ploy that eventually resulted in a $400,000 Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1953 for the continued commissioning of new works.
Brown and Hiler interviewed a number of people to help tell the story first-hand, including several of Whitney's musicians who had the heady experience of being the first to play original works from the likes of Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith. Listening to the players describe the thrill of appearing in front of a packed house at Carnegie Hall in New York is the sort of thing that should inspire young musicians, composers, and conductors, as well as swell the chests of local citizens with civic pride.
Brown and Hiler were also able to track down some of the composers on whom Louisville's great venture had such an important impact, including Elliott Carter, Chou Wen-chung, Norman Della Joio, Gunther Schuller, and Harold Shapero.
These human voices and portraits are what give the film its heart; the integration of this story into the larger weave of American history -- the Depression, Cold War politics, and the stain of McCarthyism -- is what gives it added heft and takes it out of merely parochial interest and into a wider world of importance and meaning.
I found myself wishing that I could sit down each of our mayoral candidates and city leaders to watch this film in hopes of renewing in them the idea that a city can be made great, not just through multimillion-dollar sports arenas and wooing individual corporations, but also in shoring up the cultural, artistic, and educational institutions of a city -- the very things that make it unique (or "weird," if you will) and make it a place where people actually want to live.
Brown's 2000 documentary Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles , which he both wrote and directed, won awards from the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Awards.
Music Makes a City celebrates its Opening Night on Thursday, May 20 with screenings at Baxter Avenue Theatre at 6:30 p.m. (reception with filmmakers at 5:30, $20 ticket) and at the Brown Theatre at 8:00 p.m. (reception at 7:00, $40 ticket). Call 502-584-9404 to reserve Opening Night tickets. Regular daily showings begin May 21 at Baxter Avenue Theatre ; see the Web site for dates and times.