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.
The orchestra performed three pieces Friday night. Sidereus, by Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov, was commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra (along with 34 other ensembles) in honor of the retirement of Henry Fogel, President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. According to the program notes, the title refers to the first telescopic observation of the moon as described by Galileo in his “Sidereus Nuncius”, or Starry Messenger. A short overture, the orchestra played it well, and with enthusiasm. That was followed by featured soloist Andre Levine, principal clarinet for the Louisville Orchestra, performing Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F Minor, J. 114 by Carl Maria Von Weber. Weber is best known for his operas and as the first person to use a baton to conduct. He also was one of the first to compose solos for the newly redesigned clarinet. Levine played the piece extremely well, demonstrating incredible technical proficiency on several chromatic runs as well as the outstanding command of dynamics and tempo required by this beautiful piece.
Finally, the orchestra closed with Scherehezade, op. 35 by Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsikov. One of the best known pieces of music to come from Russia, and inspired by the proximity of what was then called the Orient. The piece is based on One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, which tells of a Sultan who executes his wife for infidelity and proceeds to marry a thousand women, executing each after their wedding night. Scherehezade fears for her sister’s life as she is a member of the Sultan’s harem, and volunteers to spend the night with the Sultan. Beautiful and clever, she fascinates him with stories and jokes, ultimately causing him to end the slaughter. The two themes, one angry and strident as the Sultan, the other soothing and clever as Scheherezade, confront each other before coming together in the final movement. The piece is masterful and compelling, and the Orchestra’s performance did it justice.
Of equal interest is the concert-going experience. One can imagine the stereotypical image of an Orchestra crowd, well heeled and sophisticated. Certainly that’s true, but Friday night I encountered people of all ages and backgrounds who were wearing everything from suits to jeans and t-shirts. I ran into old friends, met new people, and had a tremendous time. The Friday evening performance started at 8:00, and with a total of 71 minutes of music, we were leaving at 9:45. It’s a great way to start, or end, your evening. If you would like to experience the rebirth of the orchestra, much like the one it experienced in the 40s and 50s, there are still some concerts left this season.
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Photo: Louisville Orchestra