Before Richard Colburn, music philanthropist extraordinaire, amateur violist and virtuoso businessman, died in 2004 at 92, he had hoped L.A.'s Colburn Conservatory of Music would one day rival the famed Juilliard School in New York and the smaller-size Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
On the 10th anniversary of the conservatory, and with the school’s student body representing 14 countries, his wish for an internationally recognized music institution in Los Angeles has come true.
“If my father was here, he’d be crying,” Carol Colburn Grigor said by phone from her home in Edinburgh, Scotland. “He’d be so proud and so moved. It’s everything he wanted: a conservatory with free tuition and room and board, world-class young musicians, teenagers doing chamber music, getting out into the community.”
Not to be confused with the Colburn School of Performing Arts, the Colburn Conservatory counts some 120 highly gifted students, offering about 30 openings every year. The conservatory lives across the street from Walt Disney Concert Hall in the brick and glass campus of the Colburn School, a much larger tuition-based community music and dance institution founded in 1950.
In a measure of the conservatory’s rising profile, Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the Colburn Orchestra — the conservatory’s flagship ensemble — in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday, having previously conducted the orchestra in a rehearsal in 2011.
The concert’s first half features Dietrich Paredes, 33 (a Dudamel conducting fellow), who will direct the young musicians in Revueltas’ “Sensemayá" and Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with Korean soloist Sang Yoon Kim.
Kim, 25, a third-year student, came to Colburn after studying at the Paris Conservatory. But in Paris, he said he wasn’t given enough opportunities to play concertos or chamber music. “The emphasis was on a solo career,” said Kim.
In 2012, the conservatory’s 116 students (several additional students recently left to take jobs in the professional world) collaborated with conductors Neville Marriner, Giancarlo Guerrero and Gerard Schwarz. And in April, Los Angeles Opera music director James Conlon is scheduled to conduct members of the Colburn Orchestra and vocalists from L.A. Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program in Benjamin Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall.
Kim, like many Colburn musicians, has won international awards, including last year’s Jacques Lancelot International Clarinet Competition.
He found inspiration, he said, in the conservatory’s accomplished performers, including its international prize-winning Calidore String Quartet and violinist Nigel Armstrong, a recent graduate who took third place — the highest-ranking American — in 2011’s Tchaikovsky Competition.
Kim said he was also impressed with the quality and commitment of the conservatory’s faculty. His teacher, Yehuda Gilad, a renowned clarinet pedagogue who is also the Colburn Orchestra’s music director, has helped 85 students win positions in professional orchestras worldwide.
“Gilad is very picky when we play in the orchestra,” Kim said. “Sometimes other conductors miss things, but since he’s a clarinetist, he doesn’t. When I was preparing for a competition in Oslo, he texted me every day and before each round to give me confidence.”
Usha Kapoor, a 19-year-old violinist from Phoenix, began studying with the conservatory’s Robert Lipsett in 2011. She agreed with Kim that working with professional conductors is the best preparation for a professional career.
“Every new conductor I work with brings fresh ideas, and they all have their own personalities in the way they conduct,” Kapoor said. “We get to know them as people too, and that’s really unique.”
Last year, the Colburn Orchestra struck a deal with public television’s KCET to air 12 concerts for an original series, “Open Call.” One of the show’s creators and executive producers, Daniel Bee, is the Colburn School’s vice president of communications.
“The visual branding you see — the school’s name on the door to the Grand Avenue entrance, the pictures of the kids on the wall in the Colburn Cafe — all that happened since Daniel joined us in 2011,” said Richard Beene, dean of the conservatory and a bassoonist on the woodwind faculty.
“We were content with being a well-kept secret, and Bee’s changed that dramatically,” Beene added. “Two years ago, we had maybe 300 people at our Ambassador Auditorium concerts in Pasadena. Now they sell out. It’s really important for these incredibly brilliant students to play to a full house.”
Or, as Colburn Grigor, once a concert pianist herself, put it: “It’s helping students grow into the person they need to be to walk on stage in front of 2,000 people and just smile, take a bow and play — without hurling your guts backstage first.”
Beene and the conservatory faculty recently established three seminars to enhance the traditional focus on artistry and technique: “The Healthy Musician,” a course on physical and mental wellness that employs yoga and other techniques; “The Working Musician” and “The Teaching Musician.”
By maintaining close associations with Los Angeles Opera, L.A. Chamber Orchestra and the Philharmonic — musicians from all three organizations are Colburn Conservatory alumni or faculty members — the school has also become part of the city’s cultural fabric.
In 2007, the spacious, light-filled 12-story Olive Street wing was constructed, with teaching space, practice rooms, an orchestra rehearsal and recital hall, and housing. Used by the conservatory and the Colburn School of Performing Arts, the space has also become a public destination, offering the cafeteria-style Colburn Cafe, where the likes of Plácido Domingo, Dudamel and Conlon have been seen dining.
But this major addition put the school in the red, despite its endowment of roughly $200 million.
“The school has a $130-million debt, and before the economic downturn, the endowment was bigger than it is now,” said Sel Kardan, the Colburn School’s president and chief executive. “That said, with the economy picking up and enrollment in the community school and adult studies program starting to accelerate, we feel like we’re in a healthy position at the moment.”
Kardan cited positive trends in recent fundraising and said the construction will eventually pay for itself.
“Outside organizations rent Zipper or Thayer Hall,” Kardan said. “They use our facilities for recordings. Major U.S. conservatories come to the Colburn to have their regional auditions. The side effect of lifting our profile so much has attracted a new donor pool.”
It may also be a case of build it and they will come. In August, two members of the Tokyo String Quartet — first violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith — will head the conservatory’s string chamber music program. And there are conservatory plans to develop a vocal and composer program.
But one of the school’s biggest draws remains its record in helping students find jobs. In the last three years, Kardan said, 94% of conservatory graduates either won jobs or continued their music studies.
“It’s this idea of a portfolio career,” Kardan said. “Teaching, chamber music, orchestral performance and entrepreneurship are some of the viable, satisfying options. In my conservatory days, everybody wanted to be a soloist. Of course only .01% ended up being a soloist. To survive, we all know they are going to have to be flexible.”