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Music Notes: Chicago Sinfonietta's minority-minded maestro

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Paul Freeman is a rarity in the world of classical music: an eminent black conductor who's been at it for almost three decades. "There are only a handful of us around," he says with a hint of indignation. On the phone from Victoria, Canada--his home base; he heads that city's principal orchestra--Freeman explains that the dearth of minority performers and audiences was a major impetus behind his decision to form the Chicago Sinfonietta last year.

"The Chicago Symphony, for various reasons, has never had a permanent black musician," he continues. Indeed, the rosters of other notable American orchestras are also overwhelmingly dominated by WASPs and European emigres. In contrast, the Sinfonietta seeks out minorities. According to Freeman, "about one fourth of our players represent a combination of black, Hispanic, and Asian heritages; half of them are women. Similar proportions hold for our staff and board of directors. Already our liberal attitude is attracting attention. When a black violist moved here recently, we were the first group she contacted." However, he acknowledges, "with the exception of Asians, it is very hard to recruit quality minority instrumentalists."

Why? Freeman blames government. "During the 60s and 70s," he argues, "the boards of education cut back in music programs. Minorities were affected the most. A poor kid's family could not afford to rent an instrument, let alone pay for lessons. If a black kid were talented, he was more likely to use his voice. That's why there are many more black singers today." Home environment and cultural image, he adds, have been factors too: "Look at the new crop of Asian musicians. They were trained with the Suzuki method, and the sense of discipline instilled by their parents is ideally suited to classical music. When I was growing up, my parents preferred to tune the radio to the Met and the NBC Symphony. So it seemed the natural thing for me to pick up the violin and the clarinet. In fact, I resented it when people asked me if I was following the steps of Louis Armstrong. For a long time I refused to play a note of jazz. But let's face it, most black families are not familiar with the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. How could they? They are victims of historical conditions."

As an illustration, Freeman delves into a bit of personal history. In Richmond, Virginia, where he grew up, he says, "I went to a segregated school, and I was forbidden to play music or attend concerts. Things improved gradually with the civil-rights movement, and I went on to get a PhD in theory from the Eastman School of Music. Still, when Toscanini was in town on his farewell tour, the blacks were boycotting the segregated auditorium where he was to appear. For me, it presented a terrible dilemma. In the end, I sneaked into the hall. I just wasn't going to miss the great maestro. Though we've made great strides since, the struggle is by no means over."

Freeman has two missions in life: good music making and the introduction of classical music to minorities and to the young. He's been helped by a growing renown as a thoughtful conductor, a reputation acquired through prizewinning albums and numerous conducting appearances in North America and Europe. In fact, he owes the opportunity to start the Chicago Sinfonietta to an invitation to guest conduct here. "A couple of summers ago," Freeman explains, "I guest conducted at Grant Park and was very pleased with the reaction. I felt good vibes. So when certain people in the community approached me about spending more time here, I agreed. As you know, Chicago was then the only big city without a midsize orchestra. We decided to fill that void. This way we have a niche to ourselves and are not in direct competition with the CSO or Music of the Baroque."

But playing second fiddle to the mighty CSO is no easy matter. Just ask backers of the American Symphony, Sinfonia Musicale, and Orchestra of Illinois, to name some outfits that failed in the attempt. Freeman sees a better fate for his brainchild. "For starters," he says, "we are in the western suburbs, affiliated with Rosary College, where we've been developing a new audience base. And, unlike the previous groups, we dont try to cultivate the Symphony goers. On the contrary, we want to reach people who don't normally go to Orchestra Hall." With the eager helping hand of local business and community organizations, the Sinfonietta played to diverse crowds in its inaugural season. "Almost a third of our audiences were parents and children from Headstart, seniors, and a mixture of ethnics," Freeman says with evident pride. They were appreciative audiences, too, judging by the season finale, an all-Mozart affair in which the music was the epitome of taste and gracefulness.

Freeman's musical taste is diverse as well. "I like to play the whole spectrum, from pre-Baroque to Ginastera," he says. "It's the vitality common to music of all periods that interests me." Not surprisingly, his ensemble's seven programs this year run the gamut of styles; the only feature they share is the rarely heard music of black American composers. Freeman is credited with having discovered and championed obscure but important black composers, past and present, such as Nunes-Garcia and Ulysses Kay; many of their compositions, never properly premiered, came to light in the pathbreaking Black Composers series recorded by Freeman for Columbia Records during the 70s. "The series resulted in many activities," he says, "including commissions awarded to black composers by the likes of Zubin Mehta and Seiji Ozawa. That was one great achievement of my career."

Recordings have been one way for Freeman to reach out to a broader audience. Now that he has his own multiethnic, youthful orchestra, he hopes that television will be another. "We are talking with the local CBS station about a series of youth concerts to be taped in their studio," he says. "Interesting youngsters in classical music is a tricky business. You can't be too pedantic, but you can't be too frivolous either. Remember those televised concerts Leonard Bernstein used to do in the 60s? They were wonderful, and they showed the pleasure of serious music making to an entire generation. If I can, I'd like to be a Bernstein for the 90s."

Chicago Sinfonietta's new season opens this Sunday, September 25, at Rosary College, 7900 W. Division in River Forest; starting time is 2:30 PM. (The concert will be preceded by a free class on music appreciation from 1 to 2.) Headlined by the celebrated soprano Martina Arroyo, the ample program includes works of Mozart, Barber, Verdi, DeFalla, and George Walker, one of the black composers to be showcased throughout the season; it will be repeated at 8:30 PM Tuesday, September 27, at Orchestra Hall. Admission prices range from $12 to $25. For additional info call 366-1062.

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