Music review: Finally, a party for Betty Freeman

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The first major music news of 2009 was the death on Jan. 4 of the great patron Betty Freeman at 87 in Beverly Hills. Modern music would not be what it is today without her. She commissioned hundreds of new works. She championed the most important and most progressive composers of the last half century, and many when they were just starting out. She made a huge difference.

Out of the blue, she started sending John Cage a monthly stipend when she first met him in the early ‘60s and learned he had little money. Philip Glass and John Adams have her to thank for their first operas -- “Einstein on the Beach” and “Nixon in China” – which helped define a new American approach to the lyric stage.


And yet Freeman seems to have just vanished. She had let it be known in no uncertain terms that she wanted no funeral and no memorial.

So Wednesday, 16 months and one day after Freeman died, CalArts skirted her stricture by calling its tribute at REDCAT “Party for Betty!” Most people, though, would call it a straightforward and relatively modest concert. The evening had none of the trappings of a memorial, no remembrances from the stage or video. None of the photographs she took, which marvelously documented key composers and musicians of her age, were on display.

The composers chosen were certainly among those close to her, but they were of the older generations and mostly dead, not the young composers she sought out to the end. Oddly enough, though, the majority of the performers were students (Freeman endowed a scholarship fund at CalArts). Nor were the pieces chosen necessarily ones Betty had commissioned.

Still, it was a fine concert of fine music too seldom heard. Freeman championed dissonant, abstract Modernism, disliked any hint of Romanticism (she was suspicious of anything too ‘beautiful’) and basically disapproved of the idea of playing old music or new music that reminded her of old music. When composers such as Glass, Lou Harrison or Kaija Saariaho strayed from the hard-core line, she was not happy, although she didn’t necessarily drop them. She adored mavericks. She was much more interested in hearing the music of living composers than of dead ones, even dead ones whom she had underwritten.

Freeman was particularly astute in collecting cranks, be they wild individualist composers such as Harry Partch (who invented his own magnificent if impractical instruments) and Conlon Nancarrow (who had a preference for the player piano) or the recently deceased music critic Alan Rich, who helped her put on what are now legendary musicales in her Beverly Hills home.

Wednesday’s “party” began with Danny Holt as the dazzlingly jumpy pianist in Nancarrow’s “3 Two-Part Studies,” barely playable by human hands. Guitarist John Schneider, who has done much to return Partch to the concert hall, played and sang Partch’s “Three Intrusions” on a specially adapted instrument with an assist from Erin Barnes on a homemade, Partch-designed diamond marimba. These pieces were written in 1940 and 1950, before Freeman had begun commissioning, but the movement from James Tenney’s bubbling offbeat “Song ‘n’ Dance for Harry Partch” was a proud 1999 Freeman commission.

Freeman was right at home in John Cage’s avant-garde New York School circle, and two of his solo violin “Freeman Etudes” (which Freeman never tired of pointing out she hadn’t commissioned) were impressively played by two young violinists named Andrew (Tholl and McIntosh). Morton Feldman’s quiet “King of Denmark” was delicately tapped out by Lydia Martin. Earle Brown’s “Four Systems” was turned over to laptops.

Freeman was a friend of the Minimalists too, and the program ended with flutist Christine Tavolacci tackling Steve Reich’s “Vermont Counterpoint.” In her last decade, Freeman turned her attention to Europe. Helmut Lachenmann was a favorite, his odd use of instruments reminding her of her beloved American eccentrics. At REDCAT, Emi Tamura played Lachenmann’s ghostly “Guero” by rubbing her fingernails along the keys of the piano. It was touching music, in more senses than one, given the lovely ghostlike resonances from the strings that were picked by microphones.

I’m not sure, though, that this is the posthumous party Betty would have thrown for herself. My guess is that she would have liked to hear music she had never heard before, ideally music written after she had died.

Freeman, of course, cared about all the important music she had help birth and certainly wished it a prosperous life. But she once told me that what she wanted most for her legacy was to have inspired other patrons to follow in her footsteps. She was a magnificent woman, and she has. Some of those patrons who have carried on her tradition were in the audience, and that would have made her very happy. She loved company.

-- Mark Swed