Sunday, January 04, 2009


Alan Rich brings the sad news of the death yesterday of Betty Freeman, the great music patron and photographer. I never met her — although I always sort of expected, or at least hoped, that the occasion might arise — but of course my life was immeasurably enriched by her largesse, as was yours.

The list of ways in which Freeman helped shape the course of contemporary music over the past 50 years is nothing short of astonishing. It includes commissions and financial support for individual works — Nixon in China, L'amour du de loin, Different Trains, and many more — as well as funding for recordings, rehearsals and other projects. And then there were the broader, unspecified, let's-make-this-happen bequests: annual living grants for John Cage and Harry Partch, the creation of Lou Harrison's Gamelan Si Betty, and Lord knows what else. (There's a jaw-dropping list, probably a little out of date by now, here, as well as a fascinating interview from 2000 with Frank J. Oteri, from which I lifted this photo montage by David Hockney.)

What I always liked best about Betty Freeman was the conviction — I'm not sure where I got this idea, but Alan's obit would seem to bear it out — that her money went to a wider range of music than she actually appreciated or liked. Composers didn't have to cater to her tastes to get her support; that's one of the ways she differed from, say, the Medicis (also, no poison). They just had to be doing serious creative work, in a way that seemed apt to broaden everyone's cultural experience; if Betty herself liked the results, well, that was a bonus.

She was, as far as I could ever tell, a paragon of enlightened patronage. And at this unpleasant juncture in our national life — when accumulated wealth carries with it a particularly noxious stink — she stands as a much-needed role model. R.I.P.