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Six decades of music and love

Jim & Dorothy Freeman

A group of Greater Boston amateur musicians gathered annually to play chamber music, but in the summer of 1959, the ensemble lacked two key instruments. Two young music students were invited to fill the gaps: bassist Jim Freeman and oboist Dorothy Kidney.

While Jim and Dorothy had both just finished the season at Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass., they had managed to never meet. One afternoon, a subset of the musicians decided to go for a Swift River swim, and Dorothy and Jim found themselves smooshed together in the backseat of the car.

He thought she was cute. She was thoroughly enjoying their rapid-fire verbal volley — flirtatious arguing, she calls it — when they passed a farm with pigs.

“That must be one of Jim’s brothers,” Dorothy said, wryly.

Jim thought, “Oh, this woman is something else!’”

That fall, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra asked Jim, who grew up in Greater Boston, to play the bass for one performance. At rehearsal, he was delighted to discover that the cute girl who had compared him to a pig was the symphony’s first chair oboist.

That night’s performance included a Brahms violin concerto. The violinist was none other than Isaac Stern, who was wonderful, Jim said. But then came the second movement, and Dorothy’s solo. “I heard it played more beautifully than any human being could ever play it,” he said. “She was not only unbelievably cute, but an incredible musician, and I thought she was the one for me.”

Dorothy, who grew up in the farm country of Niagara County, N.Y., found Jim cute, too, and she liked the way they flirted. “But the biggest connection was that we could talk like crazy, and we laughed a lot — we still do,” she said. “All seemed right, and it was.”

At least for awhile.

International engagement, domestic wedding

After her graduation, Dorothy accepted a six-month principal oboe position with the National Symphony Orchestra in Lima, Peru. Afterward, she auditioned for and won a job with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra — becoming one of the first women to play with a major symphony. After a year, Dorothy left Pittsburgh to study oboe in Germany with a Fulbright Scholarship.

After his graduation, Jim studied piano in Vienna, Austria, then returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in musicology. They spent a week sightseeing in Europe when their schedules coincided, but after, Dorothy and Jim drifted apart.

Eventually, she became engaged to a German man. Jim heard the news and concluded they had no future together, yet Dorothy was the excuse he gave any woman he dated who wanted to get serious. “I knew she was engaged, but I still had not come close to finding anyone else I would want to live with,” he said.

In early 1964, Dorothy returned from Germany to her small town in New York. Her mother, Ellen, had always encouraged her to pursue the life she wanted, and Dorothy needed her advice. “I don’t really want to marry this guy back in Germany,” Dorothy told her. So don’t, said her mother. “Go back to Boston and find Jim Freeman.”

Dorothy returned to Boston that March and immediately called Jim. They hadn’t spoken in two years, but immediately began dating. The couple, who are both in their mid-80s, skipped the formal proposal and and simply got married on Aug. 29, 1964 — five months after resuming their relationship. The ceremony was held at Harvard Memorial Church and the reception for about 30, in the Dunster House courtyard. Afterward, they took the ferry to Nantucket. “How naive I was to think it would be easy to find a motel in Nantucket in August,” Jim said. “It took us three hours to find a place to sleep.”

Jim’s sole regret

Shortly after the wedding, the Pittsburgh Symphony asked Dorothy to come back. Jim tried to find a music job in Pittsburgh but was unsuccessful. “I was convinced that we should be living together and eventually convinced her to come back to Cambridge,” he said. “She loved that job in Pittsburgh. It was a wonder it didn’t separate us. What I should have done was just go to Pittsburgh and take a job cleaning up trash, or as a bus driver or something.”

Dorothy objects to this characterization, and, vehemently, to the suggestion that Jim should have taken a job outside music. “I have no regrets about anything I did or didn’t do,” she said.

Soon after, Jim accepted a teaching job at Swarthmore College and the couple moved to Philadelphia, where both musicians’ careers flourished.

Music and family life

For five decades, Dorothy played oboe and English horn with Peter Nero’s Philly Pops and the Opera Company of Philadelphia Orchestra. Jim taught at Swarthmore, where he is now an emeritus professor of music. A conductor as well as a pianist and bass player, Jim also played with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, spent 20 summers with the Boston Pops, and led the Philadelphia-based music ensemble he founded, Orchestra 2001, in more than 300 concerts across the United States and the world. He didn’t have to look far for the best oboe player in town, he said.

In 1968, the couple’s eldest son, Tim, was born. Between contractions, Dorothy knitted a tiny sweater. “How nice that you’re making a sweater for your baby,” a nurse said. “It’s for my dog,” said Dorothy. That dog, Rondo, had walked into a Pittsburgh Symphony rehearsal, and was the first of a series of dogs she found at places such as the Schuylkill Expressway or a shelter.

The couple’s second son, Ted, was born in 1974. During summers in Massachusetts, the boys, their parents, and as many as five dogs would crowd into the single room of their tiny White Pond cottage in Concord, fueled by giant pans of Dorothy’s homemade lasagna.

When Jim and Dorothy were invited to play with orchestras across the country, they took their children with them. The family rode horses and hiked in Wyoming, skied in Europe, and skied every winter in New England. They fished and boated at the Jersey Shore.

Dorothy and Jim say they could not have had both their successful music careers and happy children without a superb babysitter, Mrs. Sette, who treated their boys like her own grandchildren.

Contemporary life

Son Tim has a daughter, Eleanor, and a partner, Kate. Son Ted and his wife, Jessica, have a daughter, Melissa, and son, Jack. The gang gathers as often as possible to share meals and conversation.

In 2001, Tim persuaded his dad to run the New York Marathon with him. Father and son had such a good time that Dorothy joined them in 2002. Dorothy and Jim later ran the Philadelphia Half Marathon and Broad Street Run together.

Jim and Dorothy played their last opera company performance in May 2019, after which Jim gave his basses to Tim. Dorothy is retired. Jim still conducts with Chamber Orchestra First Editions, which he founded in 2015.

The couple thought their beloved English cocker spaniels, Luke and Lulu, who both died at the start of the pandemic, were their last dogs. They lasted just three weeks before adopting Sandy, a pit bull/terrier mix.

What’s next

Jim and Dorothy’s next adventure will take them to a retirement community in Newtown Square after 43 years in their Wallingford home.

It’s not easy to leave the place they raised their kids, Jim’s garden (from which Dorothy made rhubarb pie and raspberry jam), and many years of belongings and memories. They spend time every day trying to get rid of things.

When April got warm, Jim decided to take one last gardening risk. “I thought maybe I can just get some tomatoes grown before we leave,” he said.

This August, in their new home, they will celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary.

“It would take me all day long to say what I love about him,” said Dorothy. “I think we’re extremely lucky to have each other. We have two great kids and wonderful grandchildren and I couldn’t ask for more.”

“She’s still really cute,” said Jim.

“He’s going a little blind now,” said Dorothy, and they both laugh hard.

“We just laugh constantly,” Jim said. “We have such a good time being together.”

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