Local Obituaries

Concert violinist Margaret Heilbron taught, nurtured generations of musicians

Margaret Heilbron and husband August Heilbron.
Margaret Heilbron and husband August Heilbron. Courtesy of the Heilbron Family

Musician Margaret Briggs Heilbron's father told her he couldn't afford to send her abroad to study, but he would see that she received a European musical education in her hometown of Sacramento.

She studied with some of Europe's top musicians who had come to California, and she, in turn, spent her career sharing her talents with Sacramento students and audiences. As a teacher in the city's public schools and as a private instructor, Heilbron devoted her life to training and nurturing musicians, many of whom credit her with launching them on prestigious musical careers throughout the United States and abroad.

A violinist and former concert master for the Sacramento Symphony, Heilbron died Feb. 14 in Sacramento at age 102. She suffered a stroke a couple of years ago and had been in declining health since then, said her son Fritz Heilbron.

Margaret Heilbron and her husband, concert cellist August Heilbron, whom she met when the two were in junior high school, were central figures in Sacramento music circles for decades.

"I remember our house always being filled with music," said her daughter Christine Heilbron Barden, a pianist and music teacher. "There was a revolving door of kids taking lessons and playing music."

Adam Flatt grew up in Sacramento and studied violin with Heilbron from age 5 through high school.

"She was my first music teacher," said Flatt, now 50 and music director of the Colorado Ballet in Denver, as well as the Newport Symphony in Oregon and the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra in Alabama. "Some of my earliest memories have to do with her . . . I can't overemphasize how important that connection was for me. She shaped the course of my life."

Patricia Glunt studied with Heilbron in Sacramento the 1960s. She spent several years pursuing a musical career in Europe and as a music educator in New York City. Six years ago, she founded the Jackson Heights Orchestra in Queens, N.Y.

"She gave me a lot of opportunities to excel," Glunt said, recalling that Heilbron made sure her students had a chance to participate in all-city orchestras and music festivals. "I've tried to model what she did."

Margaret Heilbron was born May 29, 1915, in Sacramento. Her mother, Margaret Aldridge Briggs, was a violinist. Heilbron described her father, Floyd Frank Briggs, as an "organizer".

In the 1920s, Floyd Briggs organized the Sacramento Symphony so his wife would have a place to play. He recruited Franz Dicks, an accomplished violinist and conductor from Germany, who was teaching in the Carmichael School District, to conduct the orchestra. Heilbron, in a written account, recalled that at age 7 she was taking lessons from Dicks and attending all the symphony rehearsals.

When she was 15, she began studying with Louis Ford, a first violinist with the San Francisco Symphony. Heilbron recalled that her mother played for old-fashioned dances in Davis from 8 p.m. to midnight Saturdays and gave her daughter the $10 she earned so Heilbron could take the train to San Francisco for her Sunday music lessons.

Later, she, along with Isaac Stern, studied with Naoum Blinder, a former Julliard instructor who joined the San Francisco Symphony as concert master.

Heilbron served as concert master of the Sacramento Symphony for nine years. Her son noted that she was proud of her life membership in the American Federation of Musicians Union.

Although the violin was her primary instrument, Heilbron also played piano and drums. Over the years, she and her husband, who also taught music, performed in a variety of venues. They performed in chamber ensembles and were members of a trio hired to play for raido station KROY.

They played for touring productions in Sacramento and for shows in South Shore Lake Tahoe, Reno and Sparks, featuring such stars as Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, John Denver, Tony Bennett and Debbie Reynolds.

Fritz Heilbron, a trombonist, recalled his parents' rigorous schedule. They gave lessons at their River Park home into the early evening, then turned to their own practice sessions, continuing late into the night.

Someone once commented that music must run in the Heilbron family.

"It doesn't run in the family," Fritz Heilbron responded. "Music runs the family."

The family's social life also revolved around music., often providing the Heilbrons' students and colleagues an opportunity to play music together.

Margaret Heilbron continued to teach music into her 90s. When she could no longer play the violin due to arthritis, she taught piano.

Her students remember her as a serious musician who demanded the best from her students but also made studying music fun.

"She had a tremendous sense of humor," Flatt said. "She had a great laugh and loved to tell a silly joke. That may have softened the standards she held so high, but they were there."

Heilbron's children had planned a party and concert to celebrate her 100th birthday, but she became ill and was in a nursing facility at the time. Instead, many of her friends visited and entertained her with individual performances.

Patricia Lamb Cooke, a cellist and longtime family friend, recalled that the man who now owns Heilbron's late husband's cello brought the instrument to the nursing home.

"I played on that cello as a birthday present for her," Cooke said. "She was just a very special person."

Heilbron's husband died in 1984. In addition to son Fritz Heilbron of Sacramento, and daughter Christine Heilbron Barden of Reno, she is survived by five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The family is planning a celebration of Margaret Heilbron's life for the Memorial Day weekend.