Frieda Belinfante, a freedom fighter during World War II and pioneering female orchestra conductor who became a cultural force in Orange County, died in her sleep Sunday at her home in Santa Fe, N.M. She was 90.
She had been suffering from cancer, according to friends with whom she had been living.
Belinfante began conducting in her native Amsterdam in the 1930s and took the top prize, over 12 men, in a conducting class led by Hermann Scherchen in 1939. When the Nazis occupied Holland, she became active in the Dutch underground and managed to flee the country just ahead of Gestapo agents who were hunting her and others for bombing City Hall.
Belinfante's resistance unit had destroyed hundreds of records on Jewish residents who otherwise would have been sent to German death camps.
She came to the United States in 1947 and moved to Laguna Beach in 1948, commuting to UCLA to teach cello and conducting. In August, 1954, she led an ensemble of Hollywood studio musicians at the Irvine Bowl. The group evolved into the Orange County Philharmonic, and around it grew the Orange County Philharmonic Society, which today is the most significant promoter of touring classical musicians in the county.
Belinfante conducted the orchestra in six to eight formal concerts each season, but in 1961 the Philharmonic Society board decided to begin presenting concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Belinfante's orchestra struggled on for a while, but essentially she wound up conducting only the society's youth programs.
"She was an excellent conductor by any standard," Elaine Redfield, in whose living room the Philharmonic Society was born, said Monday. "But the world wasn't really ready at that point and time for a lady conductor. It was a shame. She was enormously able."
Belinfante also was a board member of the then-Laguna Beach Chamber Music Society but resigned angrily in 1991, charging excessive spending on administrative salaries and deploring its then-recent affiliation with the Philharmonic Society to co-sponsor chamber music programs.
She moved to Santa Fe in May, 1991.
"She was really a trailblazer in the arts for Orange County," former Philharmonic Society executive director Erich Vollmer said Monday. "She was feisty, indefatigable, single-minded. But more than anything, she really cared about music, and she wanted to share the art with a broad-based community. She can be credited for starting an extraordinary tradition for quality music for the county."
Survivors include her sister Renee de Jong and a niece and nephew. No memorial service will be held. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Frieda Belinfante Memorial Fund, 200 B Callecita Place, Santa Fe, NM 87501, to support musical education programs for schoolchildren.