Louisville Orchestra in Survival Mode

"Music Makes a City" documentary of the Louisville Orchestra in celebration of its 75 anniversary

One thing to keep in mind with these discussions of Orchestras (at least in the states) is that there is a definite separation between the Orchestra itself as an organization (e.g. Louisville Orchestra) and the musicians and their organizations that make up the heart of the Orchestra (e.g. Louisville Orchestra Musicians Association; Keep Louisville Symphonic).

As I’ve been posting in various places on the interwebs, Drew McManus (as usual) has a really great round-up of many of the articles and pieces regarding the latest LO news: http://www.adaptistration.com/2011/06/02/events-heat-up-in-louisville/

In particular some of us are very interested in the attempts of the LO to short circuit many initiatives and avenues for the musicians’ voices (see the discussion about the KLS clause in the comments section in particular).

But what was really interesting was a sindicated piece I read earlier today in the Taipei Times (from where I adapted the title to this blog post) titled, “City orchestras in survival mode: The instability of support from private sponsors and large corporations is forcing cultural institutions to return to the drawing board,” by Vivian Schweitzer.  The piece caught my attention in particular because it uses the Louisville Orchestra as a frame of reference for the discussion of what the “Chicken Little Think Tank” are calling the [Orchestral] Classical Music crisis.  In particular references to the fomation of the LO and its rise after the flood of ’37 into what was for many years a highly respected status internationally. 

All of this comes to us in the DVD documentary, Music Makes a City, which the piece references:

Music Makes a City, an engaging documentary from last year about the Louisville Orchestra that was just released on DVD, offers an inspiring and cautionary tale of creative chutzpah and financial mismanagement. The orchestra, which itself filed for bankruptcy in December, was founded shortly after the floods that crippled Louisville, Kentucky, in 1937.

It began as a ragtag ensemble that rehearsed, according to the film, “in a gloomy room that smelled of stale beer.” A young conductor, Robert Whitney, quickly drummed the ensemble into shape, but financial problems loomed from the start. Charles Farnsley, the mayor of Louisville from 1948 to 1953, suggested that the orchestra, instead of spending money on glamorous soloists, commission new pieces: a policy that the board, though initially shocked, adopted. The endeavor was facilitated in 1953 by a US$400,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to commission and record 52 compositions a year for three years. The DVD features lively interviews with some of the composers chosen, including Elliott Carter.

This remarkable venture, which resulted in works by Lukas Foss, Paul Hindemith, Roy Harris, Gunther Schuller and many others, put Louisville and its orchestra on the international cultural map and attracted luminaries like Shostakovich and Martha Graham to visit the city. But that wasn’t enough to fend off the regular financial crises that have dogged the orchestra over the decades since, until its recent bankruptcy filing.

I don’t want to make this post commentary heavy, but did want to share the above quote for some historical context–do read the Taipei Times piece!

I also found a recent blog post by another local blogger and pianist at Behind a Box of Strings that’s worth a read: http://youresomodest.blogspot.com/2011/06/learning-from-history.html

And another WFPL piece that recently popped up titled Possiblilities for the Louisville Orchestra.

And here’s a trailer for Music Makes a City:

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3 thoughts on “Louisville Orchestra in Survival Mode

  1. In that NYTimes article quoted in Tapei, it is truly amazing that neither Mester nor the NYTimes reporter have any realization that the free-lance musician situation could be different in Louisville than in NYC!
    Just to give one example – Our 2nd trombone chair has been vacant since May 2010 – the management has not filled the vacancy and is using casual players. We are very fortunate to have a college prof in town who enjoys playing, but he cannot play all the services. For the “Nutcracker” ballet, in the first four performances we had three different second trombonists, none of whom could make the rehearsal. One played for a full house – sight-reading, had never played the piece before. Musical problems during this run? You betcha!

    1. Thank you, Raymond!! Ultimately yes, the freelance situation is going to be different in different regions! And despite Greg Sandow’s discussion about the decline of freelance opportunities in the New York area–that’s obviously a region of the country with a high proportion of high level musicians that are more likely to be up to the task of filling in.

      I know what it’s like to have to fill in without rehearsals (and to have to sight read for the concert) so can understand the pitfalls associated with doing that kind of service. It is not a picnic and I obviously always feel like I’ve done a disservice when placed in that kind of a situation–but for string players, this is far less of a issue than for winds and brass (and percussion) who are essentially soloists in orchestras! I do not envy non-strings who have to fill this kind of position without adequate rehearsal time!!

      Thanks for your input, Raymond–it is really appreciated!

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