Robert Freeman, former dean of the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin, passed away on Oct. 18 at the age of 87. Freeman, an accomplished administrator, pianist and musicologist, joined the College of Fine Arts as dean in spring 2000 and served in that role until 2007. He served previously as the director of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester for 24 years and as president of the New England Conservatory of Music. In 2015 he retired from the faculty of the Butler School of Music, where he taught courses on the history and future of music as the Susan Menefee Ragan Regents Professor of Fine Arts.
“Bob Freeman was invested in ensuring that the work of our faculty went well beyond our students and local community, to have national and international prominence,” said Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, dean of the College of Fine Arts. “Our students and faculty members continue to enjoy opportunities on campus that can be credited to Bob Freeman’s leadership and ambitious vision for the College of Fine Arts and the cultural arts scene in Texas.”
During his time as dean, he recruited key faculty members across the college. He gave special energy to strengthening the string and keyboard faculty in the Butler School of Music. Among others, he recruited renowned pianist Anton Nel away from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance. With generous support of donors and President Larry Faulkner, he established and endowed the music school’s faculty string quartet-in-residence program, which attracted the Miró Quartet to UT Austin. He also cultivated a key gift that created the Butler Opera Center in the music school.
Freeman had a strong interest in sharing the incredible talents on the Forty Acres with the rest of the world. He created the Texas Piano Quartet with Anton Nel, cellist Bion Tsang, violinist Brian Lewis and violist Roger Myers, and after a campus debut, the quartet traveled for a performance at Carnegie Hall.
As dean, Freeman shepherded the strategic plan that led eventually to the creation of the Blanton Museum’s current facilities. During his tenure, the Cohen New Works Festival was established in the Department of Theatre and Dance and the Creative Research Laboratory, which later evolved into the Visual Arts Center, opened in East Austin as part of the Department of Art and Art History.
Born into a family of musicians, Freeman grew up Rochester, New York and Needham, Massachusetts. A precociously talented oboist and pianist, he attended Milton Academy during his high school years. He went on concurrently to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree with highest honors from Harvard University and a diploma in piano performance from the Longy School of Music in 1957. He earned both a M.F.A. and Ph.D. in musicology at Princeton University, and he held faculty positions at Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology before being named director of the prestigious Eastman School of Music in 1972 at the age of 37. Over the 24 years he served as director, the Eastman School climbed into the very top-ranked music schools in the country. From the fall 1996 through the spring 1999, he served as president of the New England Conservatory, before moving to Austin to assume the deanship of the UT College of Fine Arts.
“Bob Freeman was tirelessly multi-talented, intellectually restless, and entrepreneurial.,” said Doug Dempster, who succeeded Freeman as dean of the College of Fine Arts and served in that role for 14 years. “He was an irrepressible champion for musical culture. He led a nationwide rethinking and reformation of collegiate music education in America that elevated the Eastman School and the College of Fine Arts into the top ranks of private and public arts colleges.”
A Steinway artist, Freeman performed in concerts and recitals throughout North America and Europe. He also made several recordings, mainly with colleagues from the Eastman School of Music and the University of Texas. Freeman also commissioned many contributions to contemporary classical music, including Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World (1983), a setting of the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. narrated at its premiere by baseball Hall of Famer Willie Stargell.
As a musicologist, Freeman published articles on music, as well as several books, including The Crisis of Classical Music in America: Lessons from a Life in the Education of Musicians (2014), Gilbert Kalish: American Pianist (2021) and Woof!: A Love Story of Dogs, Music and Life (2019). He also had recently completed his autobiography, as well as a major new book about the future of the American orchestra.
He received numerous awards over his lifetime, including a Fulbright Fellowship, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, a Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation Award and an honorary doctorate from Hamilton College. He was honored with Rochester's Civic Medal, in recognition of his work on the revitalization of downtown Rochester. He was awarded an honorary degree in April 2015 by the Eastman School of Music, which named the atrium of its Sibley Music Library the “Freeman Family Atrium.” He held leadership roles in many professional and scholarly organizations, including the American Musicological Society, the College Music Society, the National Association of Schools of Music and the National Advisory Board of the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago.
In a message drafted to mark the end of Freeman’s tenure as dean in 2006, former UT President Larry Faulkner wrote, “Bob, you have brought the most valuable gifts to Austin: first-rate standards, breathtaking imagination and boundless energy to build. The university is a vastly better institution for your work.”