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Runyon: Louisville Orchestra's New Listeners Part of Its Storied History

MASS
Music Makes a City Now
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It’s a joyful thing to behold – our city’s renewed love affair with the Louisville Orchestra. Since its founding in 1937, the orchestra has had a rollercoaster history. It rose to peaks of fame in the 1950s and 1960s with its extraordinary new music commissions and recordings. And it sank to near-death status when labor strife and financial collapse made its future unclear in recent years.

Last weekend, the new season opened with a radiant performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.” The production involved more than 200 performers under the baton of Teddy Abrams, the 27-year-old wunderkind who became music director last year.

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Abrams doesn’t simply conduct; he performs. Instead of the tie and tails associated with legendary conductors like Bruno Walter, Robert Whitney and Arthur Fiedler, this millennial maestro bounds up to the platform in black slacks and long-sleeved black t-shirt. This is the 21st Century.

Thanks to the remarkable documentary “Music Makes a City,” produced by Owsley Brown III and narrated by musician Will Oldham, all of us have an opportunity to understand why Louisville and its orchestra are special. The film recounts the efforts of city leaders in the early 1950s to rebuild the orchestra, which was falling on hard times.

I was a lucky beneficiary of their vision. As a small child in Louisville, I had the opportunity to go to the ballet, the Children’s Theatre, the opera and most of all the Orchestra. Under the music director Robert Whitney, thousands of schoolchildren were taken in yellow school buses to Freedom Hall, the newly opened arena at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds, for the “Making Music” concert series.

Every week in school we had music lessons. But all of us had what amounted to advanced courses taught by the genial, erudite Mr. Whitney. More than a half-century later, my music of choice is still mostly classical. I attribute that to him.

One of the saddest things I’ve observed in my adult life is the decline of music literacy among young people. As I sat in the Whitney Hall audience last Saturday night and looked around, I was pleased to see many young people of Teddy Abrams’ age absorbing the remarkable experience of a live concert. Their interest now will keep the Orchestra alive for coming generations.

It is true that music makes a city. I believe Louisville is special for many reasons. Not least of these is our symphony.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. His commentaries run every Friday on 89.3-WFPL and wfpl.org.