The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Richard Freed, classical music critic, dies at 93

Richard Freed, seen in 2019, was just as likely to address the complicated history of jazz in the Soviet Union as he was to write about the classical “hits.” (John W. Lambert)

Richard Freed, a classical music critic and administrator renowned for the program notes he wrote for the National Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the leading ensembles of Baltimore, Houston and Philadelphia, died Jan. 1 at his home in Rockville, Md. He was 93.

The cause was a heart attack, said his daughter, Erica Freed.

A courtly, soft-spoken man, Mr. Freed was widely regarded as a writer many other critics read to learn from. He was the executive director of the Music Critics Association (later the Music Critics Association of North America) from 1974 to 1990. He won a Grammy Award for best liner notes on a historical recording in 1995 for his work on “The Heifetz Collection,” a near-complete collection of the recordings of violinist Jascha Heifetz.

Leonard Slatkin, for whom Mr. Freed served as an adviser during his music directorships at the NSO and the St. Louis Symphony, wrote in an email tribute this week: “There simply was no better program annotator.”

“When the audience arrives for a performance, or these days gets concert information in advance, it is the program book annotator who becomes their guide to the history, content and design of the works that will be performed,” Slatkin added. “Writing for both knowledgeable patrons as well as new comers is not easy, and Richard was one of the very few who could bridge those two worlds with consummate skill.”

Mr. Freed was active for six decades, contributing regularly to The Washington Post, the New York Times and the old Washington Star, among many other publications. He had an extended association with Stereo Review, for which, in addition to monthly reviews and articles, he wrote a generalist introduction to the most familiar classical music in a column called “The Basic Repertoire.”

His tastes varied widely. Mr. Freed was just as likely to address the complicated history of jazz in the Soviet Union or a new edition of an opera by 19th-century composer Jacques Offenbach as he was to write about the classical “hits.” The late Teresa Sterne, who turned the Nonesuch record label into a home for contemporary music in the 1960s and 1970s, revered Mr. Freed and relied on his input for anything she chose to record.

In 1989, the 225-member branch of the Music Critics Association issued a statement protesting the Helms amendment, a law proposed by conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that would have prohibited federal support of any work of art that might be judged obscene or indecent. “The association has never taken a stand on anything of this sort before,” Mr. Freed said in a statement, noting that the group members thought it warranted in this instance. He dismissed the amendment as “a spectacle of politicians meddling in the arts.”

Richard Donald Freed was born in Chicago on Dec. 27, 1928, and grew up in Tulsa, where his Russian immigrant father owned a furniture store. His mother was a homemaker. As a young man, he recalled, he always kept by his bedside a copy of “The Victor Book of the Opera” — a lavishly illustrated book that combined instruction in the history of opera and an array of Victor (later RCA Victor) recordings that were for sale. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1947 with a degree in philosophy.

He began publishing articles in the mid-1950s and became a contributing editor to Saturday Review. From 1966 to 1970, he was public relations director of the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and assistant to the school’s director but resigned amid his increasing freelance obligations. He later served as director of public relations for the St. Louis Symphony and programmed and annotated recordings for the Smithsonian Institution.

In addition to his daughter, of Los Angeles, Mr. Freed is survived by his wife of 63 years, Louise Kono, of Rockville.

For all his gentility, Mr. Freed could be acid in his observations. He complained publicly and privately about the seeming inevitability of standing ovations at Washington performances, which he called “appalling.” “There’s the attitude that if it’s any good at all, there must be a standing ovation” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1993.

Reviewing “A Guide to Orchestral Music: The Handbook for Non-Musicians” (1980), written by Ethan Mordden and published by Oxford University Press, he took issue with the author’s own transliteration of Russian names. “Tchaikovsky becomes ‘Chaikofsky.’ His compatriot who signed himself ‘Sergei Rachmaninoff’ in the West is ‘corrected’ to ‘Syergyey Rachmaninof,’ and Mussorgsky becomes ‘Musorksky,’ for heaven’s sake.”