Betty Freeman’s memorable portraits of classical music artists


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Betty Freeman, a great patron of the city’s arts, is best remembered as an influential benefactor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A lesser-known part of her legacy is her photographs of composers and musicians.

It was while producing a 1973 documentary on the cantankerous composer Harry Partch that she unintentionally took on the additional duty of still photographer. A camera was thrust into her hands when none of the crew was available, and thus began a decades-long labor of love.


Some 71 of Freeman’s intimate portraits and documents are on view at ‘Music People: The Photography of Betty Freeman,’ at the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s Ernest Fleischmann Gallery. ‘There is no esteemed composer that isn’t in her collection; she knew them all,’ said L.A. Philharmonic President Deborah Borda. The images, on display for the first time since Freeman’s death in 2009, are drawn from her personal collection, which she willed to the orchestra.

Each musician had a direct relationship with the Philharmonic and a personal connection to Freeman. Many attended the private musical salons she hosted at her home in Beverly Hills, along with her second husband, painter and sculptor, Franco Assetto. There, guests would gather to listen to new works from various composers.

Because of her exclusive access, Freeman was able to capture the angst of pianist Alfred Brendel and an angelic-looking Esa-Pekka Salonen. In 2000, she visited the Getty with conductor Christoph Eschenbach, posing him in front of James Ensor’s painting ‘Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889.’ Freeman would frequently lend a hand to support down-on-their-luck musicians such as John Cage and onetime traveling hobo Partch. ‘Betty simply loved music people, and composers in particular,’ said Borda said.

Freeman originally trained to be a concert pianist. As a contemporary music enthusiast, she awarded more than 400 grants and commissions. A few were dedicated to her, including John Adams’ opera ‘Nixon in China.’

She had her favorites, which would rotate from Harrison Birtwistle to Conlon Nancarrow. She’d have an infatuation with a certain character for awhile but always kept the friendship of all. Freeman was candid and never reluctant to speak her mind. ‘It was well-known that if she heard a piece and didn’t like it, she would tell the composer, ‘Dear, I didn’t like that piece, it was just trash,’’ Borda said.


-- Liesl Bradner