Sunday, August 2, 2015

Paul Freeman (1936-2015)

Paul Freeman, the Richmond-born conductor who was a pioneer in performing and recording works of African-American composers, has died at 79.

In the 1970s, Freeman recorded nine albums surveying black composers for Columbia Records; a generation later, he supplemented those recordings with the African Heritage Symphonic Series on the Cedille label. He also recorded much of the standard repertory, from Mozart to Mahler, with a number of European orchestras. He was one of the most prolific American conductors in the recording studio, with a discography of more than 200 releases.

In 1987, Freeman founded the Chicago Sinfonietta; he led the ensemble, famed for the racial and ethnic diversity of its roster, for 24 years. In 1996 he was named chief conductor of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. He also had been music director of the Victoria Symphony in British Columbia, and had held posts with the Dallas and Detroit symphonies and the Helsinki Philharmonic.

Freeman, one of 12 children of Mr. and Mrs. L.H. Freeman, grew up in the Jackson Ward neighborhood of Richmond. He was a 1952 graduate of Armstrong High School in the city’s then-racially segregated school system. He was one of two prominent conductors to come out of the school’s orchestra program, led by Maurice Williams. (The other was the late Leon Thompson, who was educational director of the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s.) Freeman also studied locally with cellist June Carpenter and clarinetist-conductor F. Nathaniel Gatlin.

Freeman subsequently earned degrees from the Eastman School of Music and the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, and underwent advanced study in conducting with Pierre Monteux and Richard Lert.

An obituary by Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times: