This weekend was a historic one for the Chicago Sinfonietta and its founder, Paul Freeman. The conductor, who has served as music director for the orchestra’s entire 24-year existence, led his final concerts in that post May 22 and 23. The concerts served as a literal “passing of the baton”: Freeman shared conducting duties with music director-designate Mei-Ann Chen on a program titled “Women In Classical Music,” featuring works by Jennifer Higdon, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Gwyneth Walker, and Sinfonietta violist Reneé Baker. Chen also paid tribute to Freeman’s 13-year tenure as music director of the Czech National Symphony by leading the Sinfonietta in Dvořák’s Scherzo capriccioso. (Chen’s tenure as music director officially begins July 1.)
There is much to look back on. In founding the Sinfonietta, Freeman says his aim was “to create a multicultural institution.” As the organization stands now, he says, “We have a thoroughly integrated board of directors, consistently diverse audiences, and performances of the music of ethnic composers interspersed throughout the season, creating a diversity that is really crème de la crème.” The fully-professional ensemble’s ranks have grown more diverse, “particularly in the string section, where we’ve been able to hire people without replacing others. We started with a smaller group, 30 or 40 musicians, and now most of the music we play uses 55, 65, 70 musicians.” In 2008 the orchestra instituted Project Inclusion, providing one- to two-year fellowships to promising musicians of color. The orchestra has also been an important platform for emerging soloists, he says. The May program, in fact, featured 2007 Sphinx Competition winner (and 2008 Symphony magazine Emerging Artist) Elena Urioste as violin soloist on Gwyneth Walker’s An American Concerto.
Freeman has a reputation for breaking color barriers, having been the first African-American conductor on the podium of some 22 orchestras worldwide, including the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in the late 1960s, at the beginning of the Robert Shaw era. Freeman recalls bumping into Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the airport on that trip. When Shaw told King the purpose of his visit to Atlanta, King responded with elation that a black conductor could be leading what had been perceived as a traditionally white institution.
According to Freeman, Chen, winner of the 2005 Malko Competition and also music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, was chosen not just for the quality of her conducting, but for her ability to further the Sinfonietta’s goals. “We hope to increase the scope of composers, Eastern and Western,” Freeman says, noting Chen’s work championing the music of East Asian composers. The orchestra’s free August 16 program at Jay Pritzker Pavilion, led by Chen, will feature the Sones de Mexico Ensemble Chicago and Betty Xiang on the Chinese fiddle known as the erhu. Freeman points out further that Chen’s own accomplishments and experiences as a violinist will strengthen the Sinfonietta’s role as a platform for developing soloists.
So what’s next for the Freeman himself? “I’m going to be a kind of consultant, a grandfather to the orchestra,” he says. “I’ll do a little guest conducting. I’ve started writing a book which some people have expressed quite a bit of interest about. I had a series with the radio station WFMT six years ago called ‘Global Maestro.’ We might revisit that. There are some other approaches that I’d like to consider and I’ve been talking with WFMT about the possibility of doing that. So there’s a lot of work to be done.”