Betty Freeman

My contribution to the chorus of affectionate tributes (cf. Alan Rich, Norman Lebrecht, Joshua Kosman, Alex Ross) to the arts patron Betty Freeman, who died Saturday in Beverly Hills at the age of 87 (we think it was; she was forthcoming about her birth year, 1921, but not her birth day).

I met Betty in 1971 when she came up to me during an intermission at a Monday Evening Concert and said she liked my reviews in the Los Angeles Times. We were friends ever since, although unlike others I never took her up on her invitation to stay with her when in Los Angeles. I last visited her at her home on Nov. 22. As usual she was frail but full of beans, with fervent tastes fervently expressed, along with fervent diappointments in things that had disappointed her, like the failure of book publishers to take an interest in her proposed collection of the hand-drawn calligraphy in affectionate notes that Bob Wilson had sent her over the years.

It was Bob who kept me informed of her various falls and infirmities in recent years. I would call her up all solicitously, and she would always inform me that everything was just fine, thanks very much. Apparently she was still telling friends that days before she died of pancreatic cancer.

Others have chronicled the astonishing number and range of composers she helped, either with checks arriving unannounced through the mail (Phil Glass recalled getting at least one for $5000 when he really needed it, back when he was driving a taxi and doing plumbing and $5000 was real money) or outright commissions for major works. Wikipedia has a list of those she helped.

Betty had been a pianist and her first love as a patron was the California post-modernist scene, highlighted by her championing (with money, a foundation, photographs and a documentary film) of the music of Harry Partch. Later she became drawn to latter-day European modernism, boldly swimming against the post-modernist tide, when most critics and listeners in the U.S. were abandoning the modernists and the modernists themselves, always responding to their own inner voices, to be sure, and never cravenly following fashion, were sweetening their own music.

Her modrnist tastes were often in sync with those of her dear friend Gerard Mortier, whose Salzburg Festival she loyally supported. I remember summers staying with her up at the gorgeous chalet Dick Colburn and his wife of the year rented overlooking the entire Salzburg valley, with other house guests being the likes of Gergiev, Abbado and Boulez.

Betty gave musicales in her home (with Rich's aid) and photographed a myriad composers and curated shows of those photographs in concert halls all over the world (never seeming to dream that the halls might want to show her work in the hope of donations, though to be fair the work was often terrific, born of an access few others could hope to achieve) and had a considerable art collection and counted not only composers (Birtwistle was a special favorite) and performers and administrators and critics but also artists (Hockney ueber alles) among her friends.

At times, as Rich indicates, her extreme and, to some of us, sometimes downright eccentric likes and dislikes, along with her pig-headed perversities, drove her always-forgiving friends mildly batty. We had an intense argument in November, inspired by the Doctor Atomic DVD, about her refusal to read librettos or follow subtitles in opera; for her, it was just music. But her generosity (social as well as financial) and her absolute reliance on her own taste and no one else's (here I think Ross gets it slightly wrong; she only gave when she loved, at least most of the time) made her a unique and remarkable person. As so many others have already lovingly attested.

January 6, 2009 5:03 PM |


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This page contains a single entry by John Rockwell published on January 6, 2009 5:03 PM.

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