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Tribute to a muse

Feisty, opinionated and dedicated to young musicians, Sylvia Kunin will be honored with a concert.

November 15, 2003|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

The musicians of the Crossroads Chamber Orchestra could be her grandchildren, even her great-grandchildren. And for 90-year-old, 4-foot, 11-inch, 108-pound Sylvia Kunin -- a pianist who abandoned her ambitions for a performing career because her small hands couldn't span an octave -- a tribute concert from the young orchestra seems a most appropriate gift.

Kunin, whose career will be celebrated Sunday with the free public concert at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, has championed music programs for talented youth since the 1950s. In 1955, she founded the Beverly Hills-based Young Musicians Foundation. The Crossroads concert will also honor foundation pioneers Shirley Brody and Virginia LeRoy.

Although Kunin has no formal connection with the school, officials there say that over the years, many Crossroads students have taken part in programs sponsored by the foundation, which provides financial aid, training programs and competitions for youth and which sponsors the Debut Orchestra for musicians ages 14 to 25.

Young Musicians Foundation alumni include San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor Lawrence Foster, soprano Shirley Verrett, guitarist Christopher Parkening and pianist Horacio Gutierrez.

"The history of music in Los Angeles, California and the United States would not be the same without her," Tilson Thomas says. "She enlisted the help of major artists, show business personalities, politicians, as well as teachers, parents and community leaders. She refused to take no for an answer."

Kunin also created the Emmy-winning "Musical Encounter," a public television and live performance series that has been running since 1973. The program takes cameras into schools, where children hear and discuss music performed by their peers. Videotapes of these "encounters" are also available for classroom use. Kunin continues to serve as the series' producer, even though she says her doctors beg her not to work so hard.

"I sound like Jerry Lewis: They're my kids," says Kunin, a tart-tongued, white-haired sprite who trained with renowned pianist Artur Schnabel ("He was impossible. He ruined all of our lives and careers!" she says now, with affection) before her panic over not being blessed with "piano hands" got the better of her.

"At a competition, it's the young ones that always win, because they haven't gotten themselves involved with 'Am I good enough to get a manager? Am I going to be great? Am I playing fast enough and hard enough?' Their love of music is honest. It's not a business yet," Kunin says. "A youngster in the third grade will figure out when a fiddler is playing out of key sooner than an adult. You'll lose their attention if someone is playing cockamamie, with no real passion.

"I went to work on 'Musical Encounter' because I really think that now, more important than helping the individual is to bring the sounds of music to the classroom," she says at her penthouse apartment in Westwood, where she has lived alone since the death of her husband of 64 years, actor Al Eben, earlier this year. Kunin produced the first "Musical Encounter" program in Hawaii, where she and Eben lived from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s during an attempt at retirement, before returning to Los Angeles to continue their work.

A 7-foot Steinway grand stands in one corner of the apartment; Kunin won the instrument in a competition at age 16. A longtime subscriber to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, she plans to donate the piano to the organization.

"I call myself neurotic, but I'm not neurotic. I'm passionate," she says. "Who the hell starts a TV career at age 70? They'd have to be crazy."

Although Kunin has devoted her life to programs for children, her manner of speaking is definitely R-rated. Expletives ricochet off the walls. "They probably warned you about me," she says cheerfully. "I use four-letter words not to curse anybody but to express my frustrations."

Kunin is the first to admit that her bluntness has sometimes backfired. She was asked to resign from the foundation's board in the mid-1980s after a clash with the organization's leadership. "You can't resign as founder. Is that not a joke?" she says. At this point, however, both Kunin and current foundation leaders say all fences have been mended.

Still, she remains willing to court controversy. Her take on the current darling of the architecture and music worlds, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where she attended an Oct. 26 performance by pianist Evgeny Kissin? "I felt like I was in Grand Central Station, exits and entrances and escalators and beige and chrome and beige and chrome," she exclaims. She also has a choice four-letter description of her $88 seat. "I had a wall behind me and a wall beside me, and I couldn't see the keyboard at all."

Kunin is also quick to say that she deserves to be honored in her 91st year. "I've worked seven days a week since 1938," she says. "All my life I've had to sell. I think now I have license to say, 'I need stroking.'

"I think, basically, with all my faults, one thing I am is honest. That has gotten me into major trouble, a lot," she adds. "I don't care. At this age, I must be doing something right."

*

Crossroads Chamber Orchestra

Where: Crossroads School Community Room, 2nd Floor, Grisanti Gym, 18th Street at Olympic Boulevard, Santa Monica

When: Sunday, 7 p.m.

Price: Free

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