In 1948, a small, struggling, semi-professional orchestra in Louisville, Kentucky began a novel project to commission new works from contemporary composers around the world.
The Commissioning Project grew far beyond anyone’s expectations. In 1953, the orchestra received an unprecedented $400,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to commission 52 compositions a year for three years. The new works were to be performed in weekly concerts and recorded for sale by subscription. The international music world was astounded at both the recipient of the grant and the scope of the project.
The architect of this ambitious artistic venture was Louisville Mayor Charles Farnsley who had a deep love of cultural expressions of all kinds as well as boundless enthusiasm and an inexhaustible bank of new ideas. Farnsley professed to be guided by the philosophical principles of the Chinese sage Confucius. It was a Confucian idea that a city with high culture and happy citizens attracted wealth and power.
Farnsley felt the orchestra was central to the city’s cultural well being and that composers were the source of musical life. To commission new pieces would leave something of lasting value for the world.
Farnsley found a willing partner for his plans in Robert Whitney, the young conductor who had arrived in Louisville in 1937 to lead the fledgling orchestra. Whitney would come to be known as the hardest working conductor in the country as he diligently poured over the new scores and worked with the many composers who came to town for their premieres. Over the years, nearly every living composer of note would be commissioned and recorded by the Louisville Orchestra.
The fame of the Louisville concerts and the new commissions were broadcast around the world by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. In 1959, a delegation of Soviet composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich and Dmitri Kabalevsky, visited the fabled “home of new music” and brought down the house in a spectacular concert. Just as Farnsley had predicted, as the orchestra’s reputation grew, so did the cultural and economic life of Louisville. After the Commissioning Project ended, the Louisville Orchestra continued to perform and record new works on First Edition, their pioneering record label. Under the direction of Robert Whitney and his successors, principally Jorge Mester, the orchestra recorded hundreds of commissions and world premieres. No other orchestra can match this contribution to contemporary musical culture.
The extraordinary accomplishments of the Louisville Orchestra were not an accident: They were the direct result of the efforts of a few visionary civic leaders, a dedicated conductor and orchestra, and the contemporary composers. Together they made modern musical history.