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CELEBRATE! : ORANGE COUNTY'S FIRST 100 YEARS : FORGING AN IDENTITY : Thanks for the Memories

May 22, 1988|NANCY REED

Names and faces in the news come and go. Often, the people who help shape the quality of our lives are almost--but not quite--forgotten once their tasks are completed and they move on. Sometimes, their names come up and we wonder where they are and what they are doing.

FRIEDA BELINFANTE

Dutch emigre Frieda Belinfante, Orange County's first orchestra conductor, was looking for a place to break new ground in musical education when she came West from New York in 1948. New York was saturated with artists, she says, but Orange County was a challenging "cultural wasteland."

"I am a Dutchman. If they say it can't be done, I say, 'Well, we'll see.' That was the beginning of my career here, pioneering when there was nothing. I wanted to build," she says.

Today, at 84, emanating energy that rivals that of her young students, the former conductor gives private cello and piano lessons and organizes concert series from her Laguna Beach studio overlooking the Pacific.

Raised in a family of classical musicians in Holland, she studied in Brussels and Paris before becoming the first professional woman conductor in her native country. When Holland was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, Belinfante joined other arts professionals in the Resistance, hiding fugitives from the Gestapo before becoming a fugitive herself. She fled to Switzerland in 1944 and came to the United States in 1947.

Arriving a year later in Orange County, ready to teach, conduct and stir public interest in music, she couldn't find work.

"I was frustrated. I came to the sticks, and nobody wanted lessons."

Before her artistic life began to gel in Orange County, Belinfante commuted to UCLA, where she was an associate professor and assistant conductor and worked part time as a movie studio cellist. She was conducting a full symphony orchestra made up of fellow Hollywood studio musicians when Orange County friends attended one of her concerts in Redlands Bowl. Impressed, they asked if she would like to lead an orchestra here.

In 1954, she formed the Orange County Philharmonic, around which grew the Orange County Philharmonic Society. She was musical director and symphony conductor for eight years, during which time the orchestra gave concerts at Irvine Bowl in Laguna Beach and in school auditoriums.

Belinfante left the Philharmonic Society in 1962, when, she said, the board decided to import big-name orchestras rather than cultivate a local symphony.

"And now the society doesn't have an orchestra. They wanted the Los Angeles Philharmonic. That was a hit; that was safe," she says.

Belinfante returned to teaching and continued to organize for schoolchildren solo concerts featuring former Orange County Philharmonic musicians. She is proud of the seeds she has planted here, but still feels the county is lacking in cultural education.

"It is changing slowly. You have to work every week for culture--you can't just pay for it like an auditorium. I am very proud of what I have accomplished here. But I wish half the money spent on the Orange County Performing Arts Center would have been pushed into education. There is this big arts center, and people know so little."

The glamorous facility, however, is generating new interest in classical music, she says.

"Suddenly I have adults who want to take lessons. They feel they missed the boat. They want to understand what is going on in that music center."

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