Thursday, 27 March 2014

Extraordinary Lives : From Orange Country to Orange County

Among the many extraordinary lives of lgbt musicians is that of Frieda Belinfante. Frieda was born in the Netherlands in 1904 into a musical family. Her father, who was Jewish, made a name for himself in Amsterdam as a piano teacher , concert pianist and founding director of an association of Dutch music teachers. Frieda was one of 5 children and the most musically talented of them all. Her father taught her the piano but also encouraged Frieda to take up the cello.

The family were very academically minded from an early age. So much so that Frieda recalled in a 1994 interview that at the school where she and her siblings attended there was often a Belinfante at the top of the class.

As a result of the Russian Revolution Frieda became friends with a fellow music student who had escaped with her family from what is now Belarus when the Communists took over. The girl was engaged to a top Soviet minister and couldn’t get papers from the Dutch government to allow her to travel back to marry him. Frieda, still only a teenager, forged a passport for her and helped to smuggle her out of Holland. This was just a foretaste of Frieda’s other major talent which was used equally effectively during World War II.

Frieda’s musical career took off when ahs was 17 when she performed at the Royal concert hall in Amsterdam. Several years later the manager invited her to form a small chamber orchestra and she acted as its musical director and conductor, the first regular female conductor of an orchestra in Europe. Frieda was also conductor with several other orchestras and on Dutch radio. She won a conducting prize against 12 men in 1939.

On the outbreak of World War II Frieda decided not to join the Nazi Kulturkrammer, the culture institute, as she would have had no control over what her orchestra did. The orchestra was disbanded and Frieda joined the Dutch Resistance movement.

Recognising her skill at forging documents Frieda began forging many passports and papers for Jews who were helped to escape from Nazi-occupied Holland. She also realised that official documents had copies in the registry in Amsterdam. If the forged papers were discovered it would mean widespread checks by the Nazis and the Jewish escapees would be discovered. So Frieda persuaded her Resistance group to blow up the registry.

The Gestapo retaliated by arresting and executing suspected Resistance members and Frieda and other members went into hiding. Frieda dressed and lived as a man in public for several months before the Gestapo traced her. Other Resistance members helped her to escape to Switzerland. When the war ended she was repatriated, but finding that members of the Resistance didn’t get recognition for their action, or even ignored, Frieda decided to emigrate to the USA.

Frieda became a cello tutor at the University of California San Francisco in 1949 and she also played in a Hollywood studio orchestra. With some of her colleagues she formed The Vine Street Players in 1953. This evolved into the Orange County Philharmonic Society with Frieda as its conductor, the world’s first permanent female conductor of a full orchestra.

Frieda was a trail blazer for the musical arts, and her feisty personality made her a popular figure. However, to further the success of the Orange County Philharmonic orchestra meant that Frieda, as a woman, wasn’t though of as significant in stature as a male conductor. The orchestra board cancelled her contract. Frieda believed that her sexuality was also a factor in this decision.

Undeterred Frieda joined the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Society and remained with them for over 20 years.

In 1987 Frieda’s contribution to the musical culture in Orange County was recognised with Frieda Belinfante Day. She appeared in several documentaries about the Holocaust, and gave an extensive interview for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1994.

Frieda Belinfante died in her sleep at the age of 90 in 1995. Through her life she displayed extraordinary courage in the face of Nazi domination. Being both half-Jewish and a lesbian she would have been targeted from the day the Nazis invaded. With her artistic talent for forging documents she decided to remain in the Netherlands. Before and after the war Frieda’s musical talents were displayed both in playing cello and in being a pioneer female conductor and artistic director.

No comments:

Post a Comment