Richmond native, renowned conductor Paul Douglas Freeman dead at 79

Free Press staff, wire reports | 7/31/2015, 5:33 a.m. | Updated on 7/31/2015, 5:33 a.m.
Paul Douglas Freeman left segregated Richmond in 1953 to pursue his musical dreams. Now in his death more than six …

Paul Douglas Freeman left segregated Richmond in 1953 to pursue his musical dreams. Now in his death more than six decades later, the trailblazer is recognized as one of the world’s preeminent conductors.

During his career, the amazing maestro with the engaging persona conducted more than 100 orchestras in 30 countries. With more than 200 recordings to his credit, he also won numerous awards for his unique interpretations of the classical, romantic and modern repertoire.

Known as Maestro Freeman, he was one of a handful of African-American conductors who was able to break through the glass ceiling of American symphonic music a generation ago.

He founded the Chicago Sinfonietta, a midsized orchestra, in 1987. It became a shining emblem of racial and cultural diversity across the classical music landscape. He remained at its helm for 24 years until he retired in 2011.

“He was a doer, a go-getter and an adventurer,” said his brother, Earnest Freeman Sr., who lives in Henrico County. “He was very serious about achieving his musical dreams.”

“He was a fine, caring man of great stature,” added his nephew, Emory S. Freeman of South Richmond.

Mr. Freeman is being remembered following his death Tuesday, July 21, 2015, in Victoria, British Columbia, where he lived. His wife, Cornelia, and son, Douglas, were at his side. He was 79.

A private funeral is planned for Mr. Freeman in Victoria, with a public memorial service scheduled in Chicago in September.

Born Jan. 2, 1936, Mr. Freeman was one of 15 children. He began taking piano lessons at age 6 from a neighbor, Mrs. O.C. Bolling, his brother said.

“Then, in the 1940s, Santa Claus brought us a trumpet and a clarinet,” said Earnest Freeman. “I got the trumpet and he got the clarinet.”

Mr. Freeman attended Richmond Public Schools and graduated from Armstrong High School.

He earned his doctorate in music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and studied for two years at Berlin’s Hochschule fur Musik on a Fulbright Scholarship. He later trained with the eminent French conductor Pierre Monteux.

While studying at the Eastman School, Mr. Freeman began his conducting career as the music director of the Opera Theatre of Rochester for six years. He then held posts as associate conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Detroit Symphony, followed by a stint as principal guest conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic.

From 1979 to 1989, he served as music director of the Victoria Symphony in Canada.

In his renowned career, he also guest conducted the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and major orchestras in London, St. Petersburg, Moscow and Berlin.

Mr. Freeman received the Mahler Award from the European Union of Arts. Among his many recordings is a landmark, nine-LP series issued on Columbia in the mid-1970s tracing the history of black symphonic composers. He and the Chicago Sinfonietta later produced an offshoot of that anthology with their African Heritage Symphonic Series on Chicago’s Cedille records.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Freeman is survived by brothers Earnest Freeman and Dr. Thomas F. Freeman Sr.; sisters Elsie F. Lewis and Magdalene Turner; and numerous other family and friends.