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Richard D. Colburn, 92; Major Benefactor of the Musical Arts in L.A.

June 04, 2004|Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writer

Richard D. Colburn, a wealthy businessman whose own dreams of being a professional musician fueled his generous and lifelong commitment to music and music education, died Thursday at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 92.

"He'd been very tired the last few days," said his daughter, Carol Colburn Hogel. "But, still, this was unexpected."

An amateur viola player for most of his life, Colburn was the major financer of the Colburn School of Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles, a $26-million facility on Grand Avenue designed to educate youngsters in music and dance.

He also was a lifetime director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and benefactor of the annual Colburn Celebrity Recitals, a co-founder of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and a generous supporter of LACO, the Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Opera as well as numerous other musical organizations in Los Angeles and around the world.

In addition, he lent to budding musicians many fine instruments he had collected over half a century.

His enormous wealth and love of music also enabled Colburn to become one of the world's great listeners, attending the best the world had to offer of symphony, chamber, opera and other musical events, including Milan's La Scala, the Salzburg Festival and the London Symphony. And he oversaw so many musical salons at his own Beverly Hills estate that his closest friends could not even begin to sort them out.

"It's difficult to think of anyone who has done more for more musicians," Jeffrey Kahane, music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, said of Colburn. Besides gifts to Kahane's own group and many other musical organizations, Kahane said, "The Colburn school is a tremendous and enduring gift to musicians."

The school, which offers after-school and weekend programs, has 1,300 students from 2 1/2 to 18 years old. It also provides community outreach programs to elementary schools.

Recently, it began offering postsecondary degrees in music and plans an $80-million building addition to help support the degree program and provide expanded academic, rehearsal and library space.

Colburn once said he hoped that the Colburn school and conservatory "could become L.A.'s Juilliard," a reference to the famed arts school in New York City.

Ernest Fleischmann, who for 29 years was managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said Colburn had "probably put more money into classical music than any other single Californian. He's just been extremely generous when it comes to music."

Despite his largess, Colburn for most of his life maintained a low profile in Los Angeles and elsewhere. He would quote his father telling him as a boy: "Fools' names and fools' faces often appear in public places."

It was only after Toby Mayman, longtime president of the Colburn school, prevailed upon him to come out from behind his curtain of anonymity that his name surfaced in any but the most exclusive music circles.

"I said you have to take credit for what you've done," Mayman, who is now retired, told The Times of her ultimately successful effort to get Colburn to name the performing arts school after himself.

"His reticence or shyness about having his name in public, in light of what he had done for the city of Los Angeles, seemed to me absurd."

In recent years, in connection with the school that now bears his name, Colburn occasionally agreed to a press interview. In one with The Times' Elaine Dutka in 1998, he said that as a child he had been "the victim of poor training" in music and still had not overcome the bad habits he had learned then.

Acting on the belief that "well begun is half done,'" he said he began to realize that music education was expensive because it required one-on-one teaching. And he saw that, while there were some outstanding institutions catering to the best of the talent emerging in the later teen years, there were few places for young children during what he considered the more important formative years.

"By providing it to students who couldn't otherwise afford it," he told Dutka, "I hope they avoid the misfortune I had." He added, with what Dutka reported as a "twinkle," that if he had had better instruction, he could have "out-Heifetzed Heifetz."

But, although he was a good musician, he would have been the first to admit that he was an amateur compared to most of his musical companions, which at various times included cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Isaac Stern and flutist James Galway.

Most who knew him, however, were only too happy to play with this particular amateur.

"Because of his love for live music and his willingness to put his money where his mouth was, he earned the love of some of the greatest musicians of his time," said Stuart Canin, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Opera.

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