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Appreciation: arts patron Betty Freeman

January 6, 2009 | 12:40 pm

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As far as I could tell, Betty Freeman did not have a sentimental bone in her body.  An arts patron like no other, she supported an extraordinary contingent of important composers -– commissioning new work, underwriting recordings and performances, helping out with living expenses, even on occasion bailing a recalcitrant artist out of jail –- but she immediately lost interest in them after they died.  She cared about the living, about new work, about the future, not the past.  Once someone was gone, she moved on.

Now she’s gone.  Betty Freeman died on Saturday of cancer at 87.  But my job is different than was hers.  I deal in the past as well as the present and the future.  Plus I do have a sentimental streak, and Betty was far too remarkable to simply let slip away.

It wasn’t difficult to become acquainted with Betty.  She opened her Beverly Hills house, bursting with modern art, to most anyone with a passion for new music.  Between the mid-'80s and mid-'90s, she hosted musicales for around a hundred guests at a time.  Composers -- Luciano Berio, John Cage, Steve Reich, Pierre Boulez, John Adams, Terry Riley, Morton Feldman, Esa-Pekka Salonen and many, many more -- spoke and presented new work.  Often she paired a famous composer with an emerging artist few among the listeners had heard of.

A vibrant cross section of Los Angeles artists and intelligentsia attended.  Betty did her best to keep the discussion always on music.  She also encouraged, and at times insisted, that others support these composers as well.  If starving artists were selling their CDs, you had better buy them if you wanted to be invited back.

Connections were made, collaborations begun, projects launched.  It was a golden age.

For Betty, philanthropy was an instinct and an art.  She commissioned and sponsored composers she liked.  She honored art and never meddled in the work.  Her loyalty was fierce.  But she was also brutally frank.  She expected to be challenged by music, to hear with each new work something unexpected.  If a hint of Romanticism crept into the music, a phone call might go something like this: Dear, thank you for sending me the CD of your new piece.  Of course, there is no music in it.  But I hope you are well and that you will come and stay with me next time you are in Los Angeles.

Her commissions were seldom large.  She wanted to spread the wealth as best she could and always flew coach and stayed in modest hotels so that more money might go to help others.  But she managed to come up with just the seed money necessary to make something happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen.

A well-off art collector, Betty started out supporting outsider American composers.  In her youth, she had the ambition to become a concert pianist, but that went nowhere.  Modern music caught her fancy when she was asked to contribute to the defense fund of LaMonte Young, a composer with a flair for conceptualism and way-out Minimalism, who had been arrested on drug charges.  From that point on, she never looked back.

Three years later, Betty began a series of contemporary music concerts, Encounters, at the Pasadena Art Museum.  I was a teenager in Pasadena at the time, and they were my introduction to John Cage, Harry Partch, Olivier Messiaen -- all of whom she brought to the museum.  Several of my friends at Pasadena High School were so enchanted by these concerts that music became their calling.  When I told her this, she said it was the best compliment she had ever been given.  She always said that when people told her that music she had made happen meant something special to them.

Outsiders and outliers held a special fascination for Betty.  She may not have been sentimental, but she had a big heart.  She took on Harry Partch, about as difficult a character as they come, when he was all but destitute in 1964, and helped support him for the next decade.  In 1965, she visited John Cage in New York and was so shocked by his poverty that she began giving him an annual grant, which she continued until his death in 1992, even though he hardly needed it in later years and signed the checks over to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  After Cage died, she sent the money directly to Cunningham.

Betty loved discovering young composers.  Abstraction and Minimalism were her favorite styles of art, visual or musical.  LaMonte Young’s work inspired the advent of Minimalism, and through him Betty got in on the ground floor, funding early works by Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams.  Later her money helped with with such pivotal works as Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach,” Adams' “Nixon in China” and Reich’s “Different Trains.”

Betty was a photographer.  She started taking pictures of Partch in 1972 and always had a small camera handy after that.  Her informal composer portraits benefited from access, of course.  Her subjects let down their guards.  Stockhausen in white coat looks perfectly self-satisfied.  Young Peter Sellars, with a Cheshire grin, sits next to a cat.  Morton Feldman gesticulates wildly in her den, with a bemused John Adams in the background.  Her shots of Alfred Brendel seated at the piano, but not playing, stare into his soul.  Gyorgy Ligeti is a trickster.  John Cage, holding a slippery fish in his kitchen, is ever onstage.  Pierre Boulez looks in every one of Betty’s photos of him -- even driving his Mercedes convertible –- the smartest man on the planet.

In the '90s, Betty began to lose interest in the younger generation of American composers, feeling that they had become too conventional.  The accessible Atlanta School types, she told me, turned her stomach.  Old Europe attracted her attention, because there composers were still willing to experiment.  She began funding new music at the Salzburg Festival, and suddenly one could encounter Pauline Oliveros playing her accordion in Mozartland.  Uncompromising Modernist voices such as the German Helmut Lachenmann and the Brit Harrison Birtwistle became her favorites.

Along with Betty’s anti-sentimentality went her dislike of religion.  Adams tried her patience with his Nativity oratorio, "El Nino,” as did Birtwistle with his opera “The Last Supper.”  Typically, then, she did not want either funeral or memorial.

But she did so much for music that her shadow looms everywhere.  Sunday night, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has a new piece by Osvaldo Golijov.  Next week, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will present new works by Kaija Saariaho and the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.  They are all among Freeman’s “Music People,” as she titled her photo exhibits and books.  In fact, her music people are everywhere.  She was contemporary music’s best friend and a mother to us all.  She won’t be memorialized but she won’t be forgotten either.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Betty Freeman in 1987. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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