BETTY: She insisted on facing death alone: no tests, no chemo, no drawn-out bedside ceremonies. Friends had lunched with her on Christmas, and made plans for future get-togethers, and then Betty Freeman retired to a hospice somewhere and died, on Saturday, of pancreatic cancer, at 86, with just a few family members attending.
Never mind that she’d become a pretty difficult old grouch in her last days. She supported a lot of music, a lot of music-making (plus art and other activities). Her choices for whom and what to support became more and more capricious at times. She worshipped complexity and abstruseness, and this led her to adore composers like HelmutLachenmann and Harry Birtwistle and to fail to grasp the simple surfaces over the profundities in the music of, say, Lou Harrison. Once, at a chamber-music concert at LACMA, when I had been ravished by a Beethoven slow movement and Betty had informed me that that was “the dullest music I had ever heard” I really lost it and delivered something of a tongue-lashing. We didn’t speak for days afterwards.
One day back in 1982, Betty asked me to help her round up composers, familiar and not-so, to come to her house, talk about their music to an invited audience, have some performances and end with a little food and drink which her husband Franco Assetto, the Italian sculptor and inventor of exotic pasta sauces, would supply. The Salotti – as Franco dubbed these “grand salons” – soon became the Los Angeles Sunday afternoon hot ticket. Our star performers included Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Philip Glass, John Adams…and a lot of young composers as well, at the start of their careers. Betty roamed through the room with her camera; her son Robbie ran the tape recorder. Franco, who had little taste for new music and gran gusto for his pasta sauces, would storm into the room at a certain point to demand an end to the music and a start to the “real”festivities.
But the Salotto proved its real value from the start. One composer I particularly wanted to introduce was Robert Erickson, whose music I had admired from our days together at KPFA. Betty hadn’t heard of Bob, but I brought him up from UC San Diego1, with a few musicians. After the program she agreed to underwrite an entire disc of his music.
That was Betty in her great years. She wrote checks those days, to cover the rent, to pay for new compositions, for whatever life demanded, for some of America’s major innovators: for John Cage and his dancing partner Merce Cunningham, for Lou Harrison, for wherever and whomever the need arose. In earlier years she had studied photography with the great Ansel Adams. Later on she worked on that art, traveling widely to photograph major composers and performers, setting up exhibitions of her portrait photography, enhancing the impact of the art she serves so well though one further dimension.
Through all the exasperation, Betty was easy to love. I loved the unpredictability; you couldn’t sell her on the late Beethoven Quartets, but when the L.A. Opera came to town with Handel’s Julius Caesar she demanded to attend to all five performances. She let be known her hatred of Esa-Pekka’s new Piano Concerto, yet welcomed Yefim Bronfman to practice the work on her piano, day after day. I doubt if she knew, or cared about, the difrerence.