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Sylvia Kunin dies at 101; founder of Young Musicians Foundation

Sylvia Kunin, founder of L.A.'s Young Musicians Foundation, dies at 101

In 1955, Sylvia Kunin founded the Young Musicians Foundation in Los Angeles that provided support and a showcase for budding classical-music talents — including conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, guitarist Christopher Parkening and soprano Shirley Verrett — long before they were world-famous.

The indefatigable Kunin seemed to know everyone in classical music in L.A., so student musician Arnold Steinhardt — who went on to became first violinist with the Guarneri String Quartet — sought her help in finding a violinist who could coach him in learning Igor Stravinsky's violin concerto.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Sylvia Kunin: In the March 8 California section, the obituary of Sylvia Kunin, who was an activist for young classical music performers, identified Misha Dichter as a violinist. He is a pianist. —
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As he relates in his 1998 book "Indivisible by Four," she called him later that day to give him a phone number — for Stravinsky's home. When Steinhart said he couldn't just ring up the world-renowned composer, Kunin said sternly, "Look, I just spoke to Stravinsky. He says he'll talk to you; so talk to him."

Kunin, 101, died Feb. 12 in a Seattle retirement community. She had had a recent fall and was in declining health, said her son, Barry Eben.

The YMF is still going strong. Other musicians who got an early boost not only from the foundation but also from classical music television shows Kunin hosted beginning in the early 1950s include violinists Misha Dichter and Glenn Dicterow, conductors Lawrence Foster and Henry Lewis and cellist Nathaniel Rosen.

"She was a very diminutive figure, but her energy was colossal," Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, said in an interview this week. The YMF orchestra was his first, at 20, as music director.

"One minute she could be very charming, even flirtatious, and the next she would belt out, 'Oh, c'mon!' if she sensed any of the grandiosity that can come with classical music."

She was not just a fan of the music. Kunin was a piano prodigy who won competitions and studied with Artur Schnabel in prewar Europe. The fact that her career faltered helped fuel her drive to pave the way for others.

Kunin was born July 14, 1913, in Detroit and was about 3 when her family moved to Los Angeles, opening a furniture store.

She graduated from Poly High School in Los Angeles and in the mid-1930s went to Europe to study with Schnabel for about three years.

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FOR THE RECORD

March 6, 11:29 a.m.: An earlier version of this obituary stated that Sylvia Kunin graduated from Eagle Rock High School. She graduated from Poly High School in Los Angeles.

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Eben said there were two main reasons his mother gave up performing. Her hands were too small to stretch an octave, making the playing of some pieces difficult. Perhaps more important, she suffered from severe performance anxiety.

"She continued to sit down at the piano and play," he said, "but she was reluctant to do it in front of anyone."

In 1951 Kunin created a TV talent contest, "Young Musical America" shown on KLAC-TV (now KCOP), out of her concern that classical musicians were not faring well in early TV. "Recently, on a talent show, a tap dancer — and not a very good one either — emerged winner over one of the most talented young pianists I have ever heard," she said in a 1951 Times interview.

In 1954 came her follow-up show, "Debut," with musicians competing for $1,000 scholarships. To lead the show's orchestra, she hired Henry Lewis, a double-bass player in the Los Angeles Philharmonic who had long wanted to conduct but was not getting opportunities. "The podium was a long way away for a little black kid growing up in Los Angeles," he told The Times in 1985.

Kunin gave Lewis, who went on to a long career conducting at the Metropolitan Opera and other venues, the chance. "Sylvia was always interested in finding someone who had something special to say," said Lewis, who died in 1996.

Within a few years, the orchestra was playing major venues, such as the Hollywood Bowl. But with success also came disagreements about the direction of the organization. Kunin clashed with the board, and in 1967 she resigned.

She and her husband, actor Al Eben, moved to Hawaii, where he had a recurring role as the medical officer in the TV series "Hawaii Five-0." While there she started a new TV program featuring student musicians, "Musical Encounters," for distribution to schools and showings on public television. It continued when she and her husband returned to L.A. in 1975.

After Al Eben died in 2003, she moved to Seattle to be closer to her son and his family. The production of "Musical Encounters" continued there and at the end of the last show, featuring a young soprano in 2012, surprise tributes from Thomas, Parkening and others were read. Kunin, then 99, stood and addressed the audience in a still-strong voice.

"I'm glad I was able to live this long," she said. "I really feel very lucky. You can't be luckier."

In addition to her son, Kunin is survived by her sister Edie Gaines of Los Angeles; brother Ralph Kunin of Santa Monica; two grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

david.colker@latimes.com

Twitter @davidcolker

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