“The Most Interesting Orchestra on the Planet” — that’s its playful motto — is one of Louisville’s oldest cultural institutions. Dann C. Byck Sr. and other business leaders established the company in 1932, and Chicago’s Robert Whitney was named the first conductor, starting in 1937.
It was innovative from the start, according to its online history:
Only 10 years after its formation, Whitney and Charles Farnsley, Louisville’s mayor in 1948-1953, conceived an adventurous plan to make the commissioning, performance, and recording of new works for orchestra a centerpiece of its mission. That made it the first orchestra to create its own record label: First Edition Records.
With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, Louisville annually commissioned up to 52 new compositions from established and student composers worldwide, ultimately creating nearly 150 LP recordings of more than 450 works by living 20th century composers released worldwide by subscription in more than 48 countries.
The program was included in the 2010 documentary “Music Makes A City Now.” Here’s the trailer:
A brush with bankruptcy
But its early innovation wasn’t enough to fend off the regular financial crises that “dogged the orchestra over the decades that followed, until it finally staggered into bankruptcy court in 2011, according to The New York Times. It was one of several orchestral groups hit by bankruptcies, closings and musician strikes that year.
“This perennial instability,” the Times said, “has stemmed in part from an overreliance on bailouts from private sponsors and large corporations, some of which reduced donations during difficult economic periods or moved out of town.”
The Louisville orchestra eventually regained its financial footing. Its budget in the year ended May 2014 was $5.4 million, according to its most recent annual IRS tax return on GuideStar. Its $5.8 million in revenue that year included $1.5 million in subscription and other performance sales; $4 million in contributions, and $170,000 income from a small, $1.5 million endowment.
The orchestra’s top financial supporters include Louisville’s Fund for Arts, which contributed $1.1 million in the fund’s fiscal year 2014.
Since Whitney’s retirement in 1967 after 30 years, there have been seven other conductors. Teddy Abrams has held the top job since 2014. He also is music director and conductor of the Britt Classical Festival, and is resident conductor of the MAV Symphony Orchestra in Budapest, which he first conducted in 2011.
An accomplished pianist, clarinetist and composer, Abrams graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with a bachelor’s degree. He studied conducting with Michael Tilson Thomas, Otto-Werner Mueller, and Ford Lallerstedt at the Curtis Institute of Music, and with David Zinman at the Aspen Music Festival
The orchestra’s principal venue is the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Former Brown-Forman Vice Chairman James Welch is president of the 22-member board of directors.
Here’s its GuideStar profile, where you can find current IRS tax returns with annual revenues, expenses, compensation to top officers and other financial information.
Read more about the orchestra on Boulevard.