Richmond almost lost Erin Freeman once before, in 2014, to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Thankfully, a battery of music-loving insiders came to the rescue.
“Yes, I almost moved to Buffalo,” recalls Freeman, the longtime director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus and a former associate director and conductor of the symphony. “A group of community leaders got together, people from the orchestra, the chorus and VCU, and convinced me to stay. It was the most supportive, wonderful thing that ever happened. And it wasn’t hard to convince me because I love Richmond.”
Alas, the community cavalry won’t be riding to the rescue this time.
Freeman, only one of two people to lead the approximately 150-member RSO Chorus since its founding in 1971, will be leaving the symphony after 15 years to become the artistic director of the City Choir of Washington in Washington, D.C.
Freeman will end her tenure with a big bang, conducting the orchestra, chorus and soloists in composer Joseph Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation” on April 9-10 at the Carpenter Theatre. It’s a farewell concert that nicely, if belatedly, commemorates the Symphony Chorus’s 50th anniversary. Before saying farewell, she’ll also prepare the volunteer choral group for performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on May 21-22.
“Erin has nurtured and developed a truly inspiring choral tradition. And the high numbers of singers and their absolute dedication is testimony to her kindness and talent,” RSO Music Director Valentina Peleggi said in a press statement announcing Freeman’s departure. “We are grateful for her leadership, passion and commitment in all these years, everyone at the Symphony and Chorus will deeply miss her.”
An engaging and electric presence behind the baton, Freeman says one of her proudest achievements has been helping to lead the popular Come and Play community concerts, an annual RSO tradition started in 2007, since halted by COVID restrictions. “I give [former Executive Director] David Fisk credit for that,” she recalls. “He said, ‘let’s do a concert and get lots of people to play side by side with the symphony.’ I said that can’t work and he said, ‘do it anyway.'”
Come and Play attracted as many as 750 amateur participants per concert and produced countless lasting memories.
“Every once in a while, I’ll run into Bruce, a trumpet player who hadn’t played in like, 50 years,” she says. “And he always tells me that he’s played his trumpet every single day since that first Come and Play. That’s the difference a symphony can make, and that the Richmond Symphony has made.”
Freeman grew up in Atlanta near Emory University, and can trace her fascination with music, particularly choral music, back to a performance she attended with her mother at age six.
“We went to the Atlanta Symphony’s Christmas concert with Robert Shaw conducting the Symphony and Chorus, Children’s Choir and the Morehouse Glee Club … all packed onstage. I was teeny tiny and we had back row seats in the top balcony. I sat on the back of the chair so that I could see. And I remember thinking that this is what I want to do, to be on the stage with all of those people.”
The talkative tyke just wouldn’t shut up about it, so her mother got her in the children’s choir to sing in the annual Christmas concert. “So I actually did get to be on that stage and I ended up being in the [Atlanta] Symphony Chorus with Robert Shaw conducting.”
Shaw is considered the father of American choral music. The opportunity to learn firsthand from a master was the thrill of a budding conductor’s lifetime.
“It was everything I could have hoped to have had in a musical experience,” she remembers. “So many music teachers moved to Atlanta to sing with Robert Shaw. I know my music teachers did, so from a very young age, I was steeped in the tradition that he brought.”
Ironically, it was maestro Shaw who helped to start the Richmond Symphony Chorus in 1971.
“It was founded by Jim Erb to sing a piece for Robert Shaw,” she explains. “[The RSO] had asked Shaw to guest conduct and he said he wanted to do Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis,’ which is the hardest piece in the [repertoire]. So they asked Jim Erb to use his connections of singers to bring together a choir to sing this incredibly difficult piece.”
For the Symphony’s 40th anniversary in 2011, Freeman insisted that the RSO and chorus perform the Beethoven epic again, this time with her at the helm. “I did my doctorate on ‘Missa Solemnis,'” she says proudly.
She had been finishing up that doctorate at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore when she got her first job, as director of the Richmond Philharmonic.
“In that ensemble was Ruth Erb and [her husband] Jim Erb would come to the rehearsals to watch. He liked my rehearsals very much, by all reports. He told me that there was going to be an associate conductor position open at the symphony, and that I should apply for it. I said ‘sure.’ Since I have dual expertise in both choral and orchestral, I applied and got an audition.
At first, she thought it was just a pity call – “let’s be nice to the local girl” — but she got the AC gig in 2006 and, after Erb soon retired as chorus director, got that job too. This arrangement lasted for several years before Buffalo called with a dream offer. Enter our community leaders. To get her to stay in Richmond, a teaching position was offered — director of choral activities — through a new partnership with VCU and the symphony. She also began working as resident conductor of the Richmond Ballet.
“Erin has been a huge part of shaping the artistic life of the chorus and [its] work with the symphony,” says RSO Executive Director Lacey Huszcza, who points out that Freeman, among other accomplishments, has taken the chorus to Carnegie Hall several times. “She’s played such a pivotal role in the growth of this institution in so many ways … it’s really poised the chorus for its next stage of growth.”
Huszcza adds that it’s the Symphony’s goal to hire Freeman’s replacement by June: “It’s going to be hard following in Erin’s shoes,” she says.
When COVID struck, making it impossible for the chorus to gather in person, Freeman learned new skills on audio and video software and worked to create complicated, multi-voice virtual performances available online at richmondsymphony.com.
“I took responsibility for forcing people to come together. We’d Zoom every Tuesday night, I felt like an aerobics instructor, overseeing 80-130 people on a ZOOM call. It was lovely, it was sad. I would cry after every rehearsal,” she says.
The process of making the videos was laborious. “I didn’t leave my yellow room for two straight years,” she notes, adding that she would teach volunteer chorus members the music and they would record their parts and send her the audio files. They’d also record themselves on video lip-syncing their parts. Her days and nights were spent lining all of these individual parts into something that felt organic and whole.
While she will step down from the symphony and her teaching position at VCU, Freeman will stay on as the resident conductor of the Richmond Ballet, and remain the artistic director of Wintergreen Performing Arts, the summer music camp and festival in Nelson County. “My heart will always be here,” she adds. “”I’m not leaving completely. I feel like I will still be connected to the community.”
In her time with the symphony, Freeman says she’s proud that the organization has been committed to bringing the music to everybody.
“We have our big tent and we go to places like Hardywood [Park Craft Brewery], but it’s always been that way,” she says. “One of the first concerts I ever conducted here was at Toad’s Place.”
She believes it’s imperative that symphonies stretch and reach out, for their own survival if nothing else.
“I think our industry certainly has a race issue, a white supremacist issue,” she says. “For years, we’ve just said, ‘these are the masterpieces and they’re all by dead white men.”
Adapting to the 21st century is something that all classical music ensembles are struggling with, she says, not just the Richmond Symphony. “You can only be excellent if you are truly touching everyone in the community, and you can’t do that if you just keep doing it the way you’ve always done it.”
Erin Freeman will conduct the Richmond Symphony and Chorus in a performance of Joseph Haydn’s “The Creation” at the Carpenter Theatre on Saturday, April 9 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 10 at 3 p.m. For tickets and info, go to richmondsymphony.com