Bea Friedman is seated at the Steinway grand piano that commands the center of her meticulously decorated condominium overlooking Sarasota Bay.
She doesn’t play; her late husband, Allan, was the pianist in the family. But the concert piano is a symbol of what matters to her: classical music, specifically, the classical music played by the Sarasota Orchestra.
Over more than three decades in which Friedman has made her home in Sarasota, she has contributed millions to the orchestra. Her name is on the outside of the orchestra building a few hundred yards from her home, and this weekend’s Masterworks concerts are in memory of Allan Friedman.
At the center named for her, she is referred to in one of two ways — as just Bea, or as an angel.
But if Bea Friedman is an angel, she’s a pragmatic one: If you want an organization to grow and improve, she says, it takes cash.
“You can’t do all these things without any money,” she says. “People who play in the orchestra have to be paid; it’s very important to be treated properly.”
At 93, she is a bit frail and a bit forgetful, and caregivers divide the days and nights in her condo.
But she still attends the opening performance of every orchestra Masterworks concert, where she occupies Seat 10, Row 11. She occasionally attends other performances, too.
Friedman is one of the few remaining members of a generation who gave generously to the arts in Sarasota.
Virginia Toulmin, also a key orchestra supporter; Ulla R. Searing, a major donor to The Ringling; and Esther Mertz, whose chief beneficiary was the Asolo Repertory Theatre, were her peers.
“That generation of people grew up with the understanding that not only the arts, but the classical arts in particular, were very important,” says Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County.
“The arts in our region simply wouldn’t be what they are today without the generation of women that includes Bea Friedman,” says Teri Hansen, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. “She is in such good company. Their legacy will be felt and will serve as a shining example for many generations to come. It’s a wonderful thing."
On a recent visit, Friedman was decked out in a ruched Champagne-colored jacket over a basic black ensemble, stylish eyeglasses and understated jewelry in place, her hair immaculately styled and her nails freshly manicured. Her bright-red lipstick was reapplied just before a photographer snapped some shots.
Back when she and her husband lived in Chicago, they were avid symphony supporters, although the family business, Alphatype, which made phototypesetters for ad typographers, demanded more of his attention.
“He loved the orchestra, loved the people in the orchestra, loved everything I did with the orchestra,” she says. “But he also had a business to run.”
He also had the musical ability in the family, says daughter Ilene, one of three children.
“I think my mother actually had piano lessons when she was a child, but she never really played when we were growing up,” said Ilene, who has lived in Sarasota since 2004. “It was actually our father who tutored us in piano until we moved on with professional tutors.”
Ilene Friedman claimed the upright piano from their family home, but her brothers, Harvey and Sy, prefer to play Mom’s Steinway grand when they visit.
Ilene says the family spent vacations on Longboat Key, but it wasn’t until her parents “started to carve out some free time for themselves” that her father discovered “that little orchestra,” which at the time was directed by Paul Wolfe.
“My father was very taken with them,” she says.
Six years after Allan Friedman’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1975, Bea sold the business and moved to Sarasota.
“I was always interested in music,” she says, “reading articles about performances,” and when she moved to Sarasota, “I became involved doing little things and then I became totally involved.
“I really fell in love with Sarasota. Anybody who asked me to do something, I’d do it.”
Her role as a supporter of the orchestra extends far beyond the financial. She has been a member of the orchestra’s board, although never its chair, since 1981, and her Beau Ciel condo serves as both gathering spot and rehearsal hall during the Sarasota Music Festival, the orchestra’s annual three-week celebration of young musicians.
In addition to the then-Florida West Coast Symphony, she has supported the Asolo Repertory Theatre, the now-closed Flanzer Jewish Community Center (where the theater space was named for her) and several women’s leadership groups.
But the orchestra has been her truest passion.
Robert Levin, music director for the festival and a Mozart scholar known for his virtuoso piano playing, has a metaphorical key to Friedman’s condo and often uses the Steinway for practice sessions.
Like others with the orchestra, he considers Friedman family.
“My mother’s name was also Beatrice, if we needed a further kind of contact,” he says recently from his home in Boston. “She is a surrogate mother to me and I am a surrogate additional son. I always call her on her birthday.”
Levin keeps the financial interests of the music festival “completely separate” from his personal relationship with Friedman. Instead, he’ll play the piano for her.
“Mostly we do chitchatting, and every once in a while I’ll tell her a Jewish joke or two. She likes that,” he says.
He adds: “Ours is not a high-voltage relationship. It’s extremely low-key. It’s one that’s virtually indistinguishable from a family relationship.”
Joseph McKenna, CEO of the orchestra, characterizes his relationship with Friedman as a close friendship.
“She is one of my favorite people on the planet,” he says, and he’s not just saying that because of her longstanding financial support of the organization, which has included starting an endowment fund in honor of her husband.
When McKenna moved his family to Sarasota from Wisconsin in February 2001 to take over the top position in orchestra administration, Bea Friedman went out of her way to “make sure that the move was going to go smoothly.”
Over the course of the next year he would make frequent trips to her then-Longboat Key condo for lunch.
Because of her background in business, “we shared a lot of conversations about how the business world applies to the orchestra. Bea really understood that and one of the magical things she shared was her ability to share stories about building a business and how some of those principles applied to the orchestra.”
The underpinning of that advice had to do with how people are treated, says McKenna, noting that Friedman was behind establishing retirement funds for the orchestra musicians as the organization moved from being a community orchestra to a professional one.
“An orchestra is still a place where 85 people have to come together at the same time and work to put together something that’s great,” McKenna says. “It’s always going to be about people.”
Anne Folsom Smith, chairman of the orchestra’s board of directors, has had a two-fold relationship with Friedman for three decades. As Friedman’s interior designer for the three residences she’s had in Sarasota, what sticks in Folsom Smith’s mind are two things: Friedman’s love for contemporary art and furnishings, and her love of fried chicken.
They would meet weekly to discuss the current project.
“I would always schedule her around lunchtime. She would come in around 11. ‘OK, Bea, where would you like to get lunch?’ Her favorite place to get food would be Popeye’s Chicken, greasy fingers all over her plans,” says Folsom Smith.
Fried chicken stands in contrast to the swanky parties Friedman has hosted for orchestra supporters and musicians over the years. Her piano is signed by Andre Watts, a giant in the world of classical music, and many of the piano soloists who have played with the orchestra have played Friedman’s Steinway at after-concert parties.
“These people interested in music are interesting people in themselves,” says Friedman of her motivations in opening her home to so many. “I’d like to know them better and make them feel when they come to town that we can take care of them.”
It was at Friedman’s urging that Folsom Smith chaired her first Designer Showcase to benefit the orchestra in 1984. Friedman also encouraged Folsom Smith’s own philanthropic giving.
“She said, ‘Just start out with a thousand dollars. Just start out little. That’s what the secret to philanthropy is,’” says Folsom Smith. “She had great to give; she encouraged all of those who didn’t have great to give, to give what we could afford.”
Friedman’s philanthropic drive pushed the orchestra’s endowment to $5 million by 1996, and when the board issued a challenge to raise the fund to $10 million by the year 2000, she guaranteed the goal and donated another million dollars.
Those kinds of major donations are “the number-one thing on the minds of most arts groups in Sarasota or anywhere else in the country,” says Shirley, of the Arts and Cultural Alliance.
“The reality is that that generation, 75 and up, have been the major contributors to the arts organizations as far as individual philanthropy goes, long-term endowment programs. The question will be, will those of us in our 50s and 60s, 40s and 30s, will we come back and invest in the arts to the level that the Bea Friedman generation has?
“The answer is, probably not.”
But Friedman continues her support, financially and emotionally, of classical music. The young soprano Maria Wirries is a protege of hers, and Friedman speaks enthusiastically of the orchestra’s newly hired music director, Anu Tali.
“I think she’s going to be wonderful. She’s a very, very talented young lady. I think people are going to fall in love with her,” says Friedman, predicting that Tali “will be here a lot, and feel that this is her home away from home.”
Photographs of Friedman with the orchestra’s former music director, Leif Bjaland, show a close relationship. Bjaland, who led the orchestra for 15 years, said it was early in his friendship with Friedman that he came to understand her motivations as a supporter:
“One of first times Bea and I spent together at her incredible condo on Longboat Key, she invited me to go through her late husband’s record collection. She told me to take what I liked and leave the rest. I love LPs and was eager to take a look. It was during the survey of Allan Friedman’s large, wide-ranging collection that it occurred to me — Bea’s ongoing investment in the Florida West Coast Symphony (as it was known then,) was all about honoring her late husband.”
Bjaland adds: “It was clear from the records and Bea’s stories that her husband loved music passionately. With typical selflessness and down to earth practicality, Bea was endeavoring to build a living, breathing monument to Allan Friedman through music. By supporting great, live music, she was expressing her love for Allen. Bea has always been a doer — that’s way she has, and continues to be, a force for good in the community. She invites us all to dream of a better version of ourselves and of the world. But for Bea, dreaming is not enough, and she has enriched the whole community by bringing her dreams to reality.”
Whether Friedman will continue to make her way over to the Van Wezel for orchestra concerts is entirely dependent on her health.
“I ain’t what I used to be,” she says. “When you get to a certain age, you have to give up certain things. But I try not to miss a concert.”