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Sinfonietta chief passes the baton

Paul Freeman founder music director Chicago Sinfoniettthis weekend will wrap up his almost 25-year run as ensemble’s leader.

Paul Freeman, founder and music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, this weekend will wrap up his almost 25-year run as the ensemble’s leader.

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◆ 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Dominican University, River Forest

◆ 7:30 p.m. Monday, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

◆ $26-$96


Updated: June 22, 2011 6:50PM

With his customary good manners and gentlemanly grace, Paul Freeman apologizes for having to twice delay the start of this interview. It isn’t unexpected: The 75-year-old maestro is wrapping up what is surely one of the busiest weeks in his 24-year tenure as music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, which he founded and developed into the nation’s most diverse symphony orchestra. Even as the media cyclone swirls around him, Freeman calmly pushes on.

Freeman is about to appear in his final Sinfonietta programs before officially passing over the baton and becoming music director emeritus. Mei-Ann Chen, selected as Freeman’s successor last year, will conduct the season finale, a program titled “Women in Classical Music,” on Sunday afternoon at Dominican University and Monday night at Orchestra Hall. Freeman will conduct only the encore, a handpicked personal favorite, the dances from Ginastera’s “Estancia.”

The maestro is playful and relaxed on the phone, and he even bellows out a few laughs.

“That isn’t a trite question, but it is one that practically everyone has asked me,” he says in response to how he’s feeling about stepping down. “I’m just so happy the orchestra has developed as well as it has — both artistically and from a social standpoint.”

Freeman, a native of Richmond, Va., who lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and has dual citizenship, displays hardly any sentimentality in his tone. Any inquiry into his own legacy quickly turns into a thoroughly sober, reflective monologue on his orchestra’s beginnings.

“We strove for a dual mission, and that has grown leaps and bounds,” he says. “We wanted to make classical music more sensible to more people. We would develop an orchestra in a large city that has a population that would take care of talented musicians. From there, we would develop ethnic composers and develop a diverse board. But what really stands out is our development of an audience. We regularly have in attendance about 45 percent people of color, and you won’t find that too often in other cities. All those things together help constitute those glorious 24 years.”

Freeman plans to stay active and wants to have a “contingent affiliation” with the orchestra. But perhaps his most compelling post-Sinfonietta project won’t be matters of music at all.

“I am structuring my memoirs,” Freeman says. “I don’t know how it will work out, but several people have encouraged me to do it. I haven’t spent much time on them yet, but I hope to start developing some kind of literary voice.”

He won’t be short on material, from his meeting Martin Luther King just weeks before his assassination to leaving behind a catalog of more than 200 unconventional recordings. This — he reluctantly acknowledges — you might call his “legacy.” He singles out Columbia Records’ “Black Composers Series” and Cedille’s “African Heritage Symphonic Series” as two of his most noteworthy projects. Within the last year, Freeman also has given a large portion of his record collection to Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research.

One can look in anyone’s archives and most likely find three of Freeman’s biggest conducting heroes: Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and the trailblazing African-American conductor Dean Dixon. While watching these musicians in his 20s, Freeman distinctly remembers dreaming of someday becoming the music director of an orchestra — or in his words, “a good symphonic band.”

“I had a dream to have orchestras in the States and Europe,’’ he says, ‘‘and I think I can’t ask for more.”

Since 1996, Freeman has been music director and chief conductor of the Czech National Orchestra in Prague. He has held positions in Canada, Finland, Detroit and Dallas. All told, he has conducted more than 100 orchestras worldwide.

“One night I would be standing on the podium at the Sinfonietta,’’ Freeman says, ‘‘and then a few nights later, I’d be at the Czech National. It’s been such a thrill for me to have that cultural experience.”

Chen has selected a fascinating season closer to cap Freeman’s final year. There will be two gorgeous opuses from Pulitzer Prize-winning composers Jennifer Higdon and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and also works from Gwyneth Walker and Sinfonietta violist Renee Baker. As a nod to Freeman’s overseas tenure in Prague, Chen will conduct Dvorak’s “Scherzo capriccioso.” The performance Monday will be broadcast live by WFMT-FM (98.7), where Freeman once hosted a series titled “Global Maestro.”

As for his frail appearance in recent years, the issue now seems marginal at best.

“I’ve tried not to make health a factor in all of this, so it was low-played,” Freeman says. “I may have had to reduce my schedule, but I’m feeling fine.”

Bryant Manning is a locally based freelance writer and critic.

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