Filmmaker Owsley Brown Keeps Focus on Music with UNIFIED, New Documentary Short, Released Sep 19
September 19 brought the release of the short documentary UNIFIED, a new episode in the online series Music Makes a City Now. This new title sees award-winning filmmaker Owsley Brown III and his team, led by series director Anne Flatté, focus once again on a musical subject, turning the camera on the hometown orchestra and ballet company of Brown’s native city, Louisville. Co-directed by Flatté and Amber Garvey, UNIFIED follows the groundbreaking, exuberant collaboration between the Louisville Orchestra and Louisville Ballet, when music and dance shared the stage in March 2016. Bookended by Cold Virtues, a new ballet set to Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto arranged for saxophone, and a re-imagining of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, the centerpiece of this first full co-production between two of Louisville’s most storied arts organizations was the world premiere of Union, a new ballet combining original choreography by Adam Hougland, animated scenic design by Chris Doyle, and a new score, Unified Field, by the orchestra’s Music Director, Teddy Abrams. (Unified Field can be heard in full on All In, a new album released on September 22 by Decca Gold. The recording – the orchestra’s first in nearly three decades – also features Abrams playing and conducting Copland’s Clarinet Concerto and chanteuse Storm Large performing songs by Abrams, Cole Porter, and herself.)
Music has been the leitmotif of Brown’s career to date as a filmmaker – a fact that will be clearly on display this fall, when the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) presents a retrospective of his films (a San Francisco Chronicle preview of the retrospective is available here). Among the offerings at BAMPFA are his 2000 debut film, Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles, which won an Independent Spirit Award, and Serenade for Haiti, the most recent theatrical release from Brown’s independent film company, Owsley Brown Presents. Serenade for Haiti, which documents the triumphs and tragedies of the Sainte Trinité Music School in Port-au-Prince from its longstanding position as an invaluable community hub to its near-destruction during the earthquake of 2010, has been shown at film festivals across the country since its release in November 2016, and will begin showing in select theaters this fall.
In August, Symphony for Nature: The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake, executive produced by Brown and directed by Flatté, received its world premiere on Southern Oregon Public Television. This vibrant half-hour documentary witnesses the world premiere of Natural History, a powerful new composition by Michael Gordon that was inspired by and performed at Oregon’s breathtaking Crater Lake. Commissioned by the Britt Music & Arts Festival in honor of the centennial of America’s National Park Service, the new work brought the Britt Orchestra together with a diverse ensemble of regional musicians, including Klamath tribes drum group Steiger Butte Singers, all under the leadership of Teddy Abrams. The documentary will be broadcast on PBS stations nationwide in 2018.
In 2010, Owsley Brown Presents released the critically acclaimed feature-length documentary Music Makes a City, co-directed by Brown and Jerome Hiler, which tells the remarkable story of how visionary Louisville Mayor Charles Farnsley – with timely funding from the Rockefeller Foundation – helped save the Louisville Orchestra from going out of business. Inspired in part by the teachings of Confucius, Farnsley believed that the arts should be available to every citizen, and his ideas of civic prosperity led to a level of risk-taking and community outreach by the orchestra that remains an industry standard today. Among the achievements of the orchestra during this golden age was the long-running commissioning program, begun in 1948, that made Louisville host to the world premieres of dozens of new works commissioned from the leading composers of the day.
Inspired by the experience of making the film, Brown and Flatté created the original web series Music Makes a City Now, which spotlights the role of modern-day music-makers in building community. Season 1 premiered in September 2014 on YouTube and PBS.org and focuses on the arrival in Louisville of the 27-year-old Teddy Abrams and his rapid ascent to local hero as Music Director of the Louisville Orchestra. His contract recently renewed, Abrams now leads the revitalized Louisville Orchestra in its 80th-anniversary season, which opened on September 23 with guest soloist Yuja Wang.
“I make documentary films about music because I’ve always been completely captivated by it,” observes Brown. He continues:
“Thanks to my parents, my earliest memories are tied to music. Music, especially recorded music, was all around me. We sang when I visited my grandmother, we sang songs my father sang with his father, and I was blessed enough to go to schools that had music programs. Growing up in the ’70s, we all listened to the radio. There was a great variety of stations, and this music was the soundtrack to our lives. Louisville had great radio including dedicated jazz, classical, rock, soul and even easy listening stations! And there were key people who had a particularly strong impact on me and in fueling my passion for music. Specific to classical music, Moritz von Bomhard, the founder of Kentucky Opera, was a loving mentor to me. I would run around the theater and the opera during rehearsals and take it all in enthusiastically. Music was always there for me.”
Brown describes his experience directing and producing his Paul Bowles documentary as “an awakening” to the extraordinary reach of music across time and cultures. He explains:
“Paul Bowles was obsessed with musical lineage, and not just Western music. Bowles received money from the Rockefeller Foundation in the same years that Louisville was commissioning so many new works with its support. He explored non-Arab indigenous music in North Africa, early music in the Caribbean, and worked for Virgil Thomson writing for the New York Herald Tribune. Graduating with a degree in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Virginia fueled my appetite all the more for exploration in music and heightened my interest in Bowles’s singular career as a writer and composer.”
Owsley Brown Presents is currently working on another Louisville-based documentary, this time focusing on the River City Drum Corps.
Owsley Brown Presents UNIFIED
Available for streaming from Music Makes a City Now on September 19 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CC6T1bPiJM&feature=youtu.be
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