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Jeff Allred, Deseret News
Leon and Karen Peterson pose in their home in Salt Lake City. They support dozens of local musicians out of his own pocket, paying tuition, or lesson fees and sometimes living expenses.
There are plenty of tin cups out there. We have to decide which one we want to fill. —Leon Peterson

SALT LAKE CITY — What would possess a man to give hundreds and thousands of dollars to aspiring musicians, covering lessons, travel and even clothing to keep them in their art? What would drive a man to pay for concerts for his friends, or to spend years of his life working in behalf of a university’s music department?

That’s what I wanted to know when I visited Leon Peterson, patron saint of Utah musicians. I got my best answer after a two-hour interview. As we headed to a parking lot to go our separate ways, Peterson invited me to sit in his Mercedes 550 to listen to some of his favorite music. So there we sat for a half-hour, in a parking lot in downtown Salt Lake City, and as the orchestral music soared, so did Peterson. His eyes closed, his head moved gently to the rhythms of the string section, his hand conducting the music.

“Listen to this,” he said urgently. “Listen to this part. This is so beautiful.”

That was the answer. Peterson, who is 76, is passionate about music, but that’s an understatement, so let’s try again. Some men in their retirement years spend their money on golf or country clubs or travel. Peterson spends his money on music and musicians — lots of it.

He refers to it as “the artist list.” It’s a spreadsheet of about 40 musicians whom he supports to varying degrees, ranging from children to college students and the middle-aged. Each month, he writes checks to pay for lessons, travel and, in some cases, basic living expenses for these musicians. There’s a 16-year-old violinist. There’s a 30-something cellist and a baritone. There is a 7-year-old violinist and a 9-year-old violinist. There’s a soprano and a 19-year-old pianist and a tenor who travels the world, and a 16-year-old Russian pianist. There’s a 15-year-old Japanese-born pianist and a Korean-American violinist. There’s a violinist who studies at BYU. There’s a 14-year-old Chinese pianist and a 40-year-old cellist. Some live in New York, some in California, most in Utah.

“It’s my love of music and my love for these young people,” says Peterson, explaining his patronage. “It’s all consuming.”

It’s an expensive hobby or endeavor or whatever you want to call it. Each year Peterson writes checks worth well into six figures for those on his artist list. The tuition for one girl alone is $24,000. He has been funding musicians like this for a decade. Some of them have gone on to professional careers; others have studied at the country’s most prestigious music schools or are headed there — Juilliard, Curtis Institute of Music, Manhattan School of Music, Boston Conservatory.

“It’s very expensive to keep a young musician alive,” says Peterson.

Lessons for some of his top young students can cost more than $1,000 a month. Their parents can be overwhelmed with covering the costs for instruction, travel to concerts, and eventually tuition to music conservatories.

“The parents are beside themselves when I help them,” says Peterson. “They do so much for their kids, and sometimes they just need help.”

Peterson finds other ways to put money in musicians’ pockets while also providing a stage for their talent. He bought a large house a few years ago on the Weber River at the foot of the Uintas. He calls the place Riversong Ranch. Several times each year he hosts concerts there, paying musicians to perform and inviting 50-100 friends to be the audience.

“I create opportunities for musicians to perform,” he says. “And I support them (financially).”

He is everywhere for music and musicians. He paid nearly $3,000 to rent a bus to take a group of young performers to performances he arranged out of state. He regularly organizes music programs for LDS sacrament meetings. He funds scholarships for the Gifted Music School in Salt Lake City.

“He just loves music,” says Peterson’s son Brandon. “He finds these young artists and supports them to further their careers.”

Peterson once met a struggling musician on an airplane flight. By the time they landed, Peterson had become the man’s benefactor. Peterson receives numerous calls from musicians asking for help. One called to say he had a concert date on the East Coast but no means to get there. Peterson wrote him a check for the airline travel.

It’s difficult for Peterson to say no, but he has had to learn. He turned down a request to pay for a concert tour for a large group of musicians.

“There are plenty of tin cups out there,” he likes to say. “We have to decide which one we want to fill.”

Peterson, now in semi-retirement, owns a successful commercial real estate development company called Peterson Development, which is now largely operated by his sons. Over the years they have built Kmarts, Targets and Smith’s (grocery stores) and medical offices, among other things. Peterson weathered three major downturns in the economy, and he blames the stress of those times for causing the Parkinson’s disease that has afflicted him for 12 years.

“I sometimes get discouraged because of this Parkinson's, but I feel so strongly about the power of music,” he says. “I have a saying — music is what feelings sound like.”

He likes to note that he grew up in a home with just one record — which he played repeatedly — and that he doesn’t play an instrument or sing or read music. But he has an ear and a soul for it. A high school girlfriend gave him an album of music from "The Nutcracker" that he played “over and over and over.” He took a class in music appreciation at the University of Utah and liked it so much that he took it again the next quarter. While serving an LDS Church mission in London, he found music when and where he could — the BBC, Festival Hall, Royal Albert Hall. Returning to Utah, he enjoyed everything from pop music to opera. He recalls moments of musical rapture when music “sent chills up and down my spine.”

“I just love beautiful music,” he says.

His foray into the music world, which he considers a joint venture with his wife of 50 years, Karen, didn’t begin until late in life. In 2000, he started a fundraising project to renovate the Sigma Chi Fraternity house at the University of Utah. As a way of celebrating the completion of the project, he organized a musical event with performers from the University of Utah music department. After observing Peterson’s organizational skills, Ed Thompson, director of the school of music, asked him for help. Musicians knew how to make music, he explained, but they didn’t know how to market themselves. Peterson was invited to serve on the advisory board for the school of music (and eventually became its chairman, a post he held for eight years).

He attended his first university concert in 600-seat Libby Gardner Hall and was aghast that only 100 or so people were in the audience. He organized a campaign of phone calls and mailers and personally called influential people in the community. Attendance soared to 400-600. He also created and funded a spring concert that showcased university musicians — it has played annually for 10 years — and raised substantial funds for scholarships. He personally funded several scholarships himself, which was the start of his music philanthropy.

“Musicians can’t live on thanks,” he likes to say.

With that, Peterson cranks up the volume in his car as the orchestra soars. He just wants us to listen.