FRIEDA BELINFANTE HONORED : CULTURAL PIONEER STILL A VOICE FOR EXCELLENCE
Freedom fighter, pioneer woman conductor, orchestra founder and local cultural educator, 82-year-old Frieda Belinfante will be honored today by the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
In noting “her many contributions to the Orange County musical community” over 30 years, the board is proclaiming today “Frieda Belinfante Day.” The mayor of Laguna Beach is seconding the effort with a similar resolution.
The two resolutions will be read before today’s 8:15 p.m. program by pianist Seth Kimmelman at the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Society’s series at Laguna Beach High School.
What does Belinfante think of all this?
“It doesn’t matter to me to be in the limelight,” she said recently.
And she will not let the public praise deflect her from expressing strong opinions on a variety of local cultural issues:
On the development of musical culture in the county:
“For years, there was no local pride in keeping up anything good. Only in the last six years or so have any local orchestras had some success. Everything else was allowed to perish.”
On the Orange County Performing Arts Center:
“We’ve built a center to say we’ve come of age, as if we’ve deserved one. But you can’t buy culture. It takes work and dedication to the point where you don’t care about recognition and glory. . . . I wish half the money had been pushed into education of the public.”
On music education programs for schoolchildren:
“I don’t see anybody who has the idealism to do the work. It’s a very long road to get people educated. The work is from the ground up. There’s no communication when you do it wholesale.”
On Frieda Belinfante:
“I never did anything popular. I don’t like to cater to public taste, and I was always ready to bear the brunt of it. I’ve always been a controversial person.”
Indeed, Belinfante began by breaking the mold of stereotypical women’s roles in music. She was the first woman to conduct a professional chamber orchestra in her native Amsterdam in the 1930s, and she also regularly appeared as guest conductor with Amsterdam’s radio orchestra. In addition, she took top honors over 12 men in a conducting class led by Hermann Scherchen in 1939.
But she never lived in an ivory tower. She became active in a Dutch Resistance group during the Nazi occupation and fled the country just ahead of Gestapo agents who were hunting her group for bombing City Hall. The Resistance unit had destroyed hundreds of records on Jewish residents who would otherwise have been sent to German death camps.
She came to the United States in 1947 and moved to Laguna Beach in 1948, commuting to UCLA to teach cello and conducting.
“In those days, there was really nothing cultural in Orange County,” she recalled. “And there was no freeway. It was a two-hour commute to UCLA.”
She formed an ensemble of Hollywood studio musicians, called the group the Vine Street Musical Workshop and led them at the Irvine Bowl in August, 1954, in what turned out to be a propitious event: Friends approached her afterward to ask if they could have local concerts like that on a permanent basis.
“ ‘Sure,’ I said,” she related.
So she formed the Orange County Philharmonic, around which grew the Orange County Philharmonic Society.
“The musicians were so good; they were players who recorded with Bruno Walter,” Belinfante said. “You can’t say that that’s not a good beginning for an orchestra. But the public didn’t really realize the quality we had.”
Because the musicians were not paid for rehearsals (they received $30 each for the performance), the new society could not charge admission. So it had to grow by adding members.
However, with increasing success came problems: The musicians’ union began insisting that the players be paid for rehearsals, and that led to financing difficulties.
A bigger obstacle was the unwillingness by the community to support a woman conductor; even members of her own board suggested it was time to bring in a man.
“There wasn’t strong support for a woman to be in the public. Old-timers were very staunch supporters of me. Elaine Redfield, who has always been a very faithful friend, fought for me but lost.”
Belinfante recommended Daniel Lewis or Maurice Abravanel as her successor. Upon Bruno Walter’s recommendation, she also suggested the then-relatively unknown Zubin Mehta.
“But they didn’t know much from names. They didn’t see the possibilities. I walked out of the board meeting (in 1962). And that was the end of my doing that.”
About the same time, according to Belinfante, the Los Angeles Philharmonic offered to perform for less money than the local group had cost. The society then switched from an organization supporting a local orchestra to one importing groups. It has remained so.
Belinfante’s conducting career did not stop. She led her group a few times afterward, including performances at the Los Alamitos race track up through the later 1960s. But primarily, she continued conducting the society’s youth programs “because the Los Angeles Philharmonic would not do them.”
All along, she and her first chair players had given youth concerts in the local public schools. “We played for only a hundred kids at a time, at three or four schools a day. We made posters for the events the night before in a garage.”
She believed that all children could learn to love music if they were exposed to it by “a person-to-person approach.”
“We played them short pieces and taught them that music is a language which tells a story. We established a rapport with their lives. Kids were fascinated.”
Belinfante has never really stopped teaching and coaching, and her most recent project--an annual showcase for young musicians in the Chamber Music Series--reflects her lifelong commitment to young artists. The first such concert will take place next April.
“Young musicians have a terrible time getting a chance to perform,” she said. “And you have to be seasoned to play for audiences.”
As for her own conducting career, “it was just too early for me,” she said. “I should be born again. I could have done more, that’s what saddens me. But I’m not an unhappy person. I look for the next thing to do. There’s always something still to do.”
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