The Rev. Norman R. Freeman, chaplain at Isla Vista’s St. Michael’s University Church, recently graced the stage of Carnegie Hall, performing a solo concert in his capacity as a timpani player for the New York Pops orchestra.
Freeman performed Oct. 22 on the timpani, or kettledrum, for the premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Melinda Wagner’s composition, 57/7 Dash. An accomplished timpanist and graduate of Julliard School of Music, Freeman splits his time between working on campus and in Isla Vista at St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church, and performing with the New York Pops in New York.
Freeman said Wagner picked him personally to perform her composition.
“She heard me play a number of times and later told me that as she composed the piece, she imagined me playing my part,” Freeman said. “This was the first time somebody wrote something for me, and while it was challenging to perform, it felt so good.”
Freeman said for performances like 57/7 Dash, artists receive little practice time to prepare for the performance, and said this practice time is usually only on the afternoon of the concert, making concerts particularly nerve-racking.
“During the dress rehearsal my brain seemed to totally check out. I was so excited and nervous,” Freeman said. “My game plan went completely out the window. But then I settled down, refocused, and though it wasn’t looking good at rehearsal, the concert was one of the most exciting events of my life because of the way everything came together.”
Freeman said he started playing the drums in the third grade and eventually transitioned to the timpani. He said he joined the New York Pops when it was founded in 1983.
“Music was just always right,” he said. “It opened up some really neat doors.”
The most rewarding aspect of performing with the New York Pops is working with other talented musicians, Freeman said.
“Concerts with the New York Pops are especially rewarding because I am performing with colleagues and friends who knew me before I became a priest,” he said. “People sometimes feel uncomfortable because a priest is around, but my colleagues know they can goof around with me.”
In addition to performing with the New York Pops, Freeman said he has performed at the MTV Music Awards, on “Saturday Night Live” and with Metallica, Paul McCartney, Rick Wakeman and Barbara Streisand. He performs in several concerts a year and said that he usually flies out of Santa Barbara on Wednesday nights and returns Saturday afternoons to be back in time for church services.
Freeman said the church, in addition to his music, has always been an important part of his life. Seven years ago, in New York, he became a priest with the hope of combining his musical and spiritual commitments to accomplish something positive.
“I believed I had gifts and talents beyond music that might enrich the world my children grew up in and I had a call to express those,” Freeman said.
In New York, Freeman began working with college students at the Mannes College of Music. He said he seems to gravitate toward college students since that experience. Freeman said the National Church invited him last July to help ten college-age musicians assemble a CD, and he got to spend two weeks in Nashville helping in the recording studio.
In March of 2000, Freeman moved to Santa Barbara where he assumed a position as St. Michael’s Episcopal chaplain. Freeman said his responsibilities as chaplain include providing opportunities for spiritual formation and instruction to his congregation, including the 20 to 25 UCSB students who attend the church. He said he is available to talk to students and said he is on campus at least five days a week.
“I provided opportunities to meet people, to be a friend and to listen to what is going on in [students’] lives with a nonjudgmental attitude,” he said. “I like to encourage conversations with people of other faiths and backgrounds.”
Kevin Hess, a parishioner at St. Michael’s, said Freeman is heavily involved in the UCSB community.
“He speaks about finding the goodness of things and he encompasses that in his own life,” Hess said. “Norm is the epitome of grace.”
Katrina Laurinovics, a fifth-year business and economics major, said Freeman always makes an effort to be supportive of his student congregants.
“He is really helpful and does so much himself,” Laurinovics said. “He came to visit me in the hospital. He tries to be really involved in our lives and although he goes to New York a lot, he catches up with all of us.”
Paul Delaney, a Santa Barbara resident who attends services at St. Michael’s and All Angels churches, said he was attracted to the church because of Norm’s inviting presence.
“Norm is warm, genial and inviting, and he plays great jazz vibes,” Delaney said. “When Norm says [the church] can be a place for healing, it is.”