Vilars complicated legacy
Ryan Summerlin August 15, 2008
EAGLE COUNTY Alberto Vilar likely would have attended a February performance of Puccinis tragic opera Tosca to mark the 10-year anniversary of the Beaver Creek performance hall that bears his name.The philanthropist would have enjoyed all the heads turning as he approached his front-row seats moments before the opening act.Vilar also would have returned to Colorado in July to listen to the New York Philharmonic and the superstar Chinese pianist Lang Lang perform together in Vail.He would have loved it, said John Giovando, director of the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival.Instead, the founder of the once prominent investment firm Amerindo has been preparing for a trial in New York, facing criminal charges he defrauded his clients.Federal prosecutors have alleged he spent one womans money on donations to his alma mater, Washington & Jefferson College, and the American Academy in Berlin.Vilar, 67, is a complicated topic to broach in Eagle County.Vilar poured more than $10 million into the Vail Valley, helping to finance the performing arts center in Beaver Creek, remodel the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail and transform the area into a cultural hub. But the benefactor failed to deliver on all his promises, leaving nonprofits in the lurch.Supporters of the arts and music scene knew him as a man who loved to give money and to receive credit. While they shared his passion for classical music, opera, skiing and Beaver Creek, they struggled to connect with him on a personal level.Now they must reconcile the altruism with the allegations.I have no way of knowing whether he is guilty, said Harry Frampton, head of real estate developer East West Partners and chairman of the Vail Valley Foundation. But he gave a lot, and were better off for it.Vilars day in court, now scheduled for Sept. 22, would come more than three years after he and his colleague Gary Tanaka were indicted. Vilar, who has denied the charges, could not be reached for comment, and his lawyer, Herald Price Fahringer, did not return two messages left with an assistant.Although people in the business and cultural realms here have not run into Vilar in a few years, they see his name every time they enter the 530-seat theater and will follow his case closely in the coming weeks.My hope is that when this is all said and done, he will be able to come back here and be proud of where we have come, said Kris Sabel, the Vilar Performing Arts Centers theater director.
Vilar launched Amerindo Investment Advisors in 1979 and went on to make a killing in tech stocks, names such as Microsoft, Intel, Oracle and Cisco. Eventually, he began to give away some of his fortune, making headlines in New York, London and even Beaver Creek, the ski resort he first visited in 1988.Flush with money, the money manager wrote a check for roughly $7 million to cover a significant part of the cost to build the Beaver Creek theater. And in return, they named the venue after him.Vilar also made a splash in New York, promising $25 million to the Metropolitan Opera. News reports estimated that he donated or pledged about $200 million to a range of groups, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, the New York Philharmonic and the Royal Opera House in London.Vilar, who had a spot on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans and owned multiple homes, including a 16,000-square foot mansion in Beaver Creek, did not believe in giving quietly. But such an approach was hardly unique.He cared deeply about the arts, and he was very interested in putting his name on things, said Oscar Tang, a philanthropist who has a home in Vail. Clearly he was driven by ego and his desire to be known, which is human nature. Recognition up to a point is appropriate. We dont want to rely on the government, so those with the means should step forth. Anonymous giving is not as powerful as recognized giving.Vilar liked to impress the people around him and seemed to bask in all the attention more than most.He clearly had a need to be liked, Frampton said.Tony ORourke, director of the Beaver Creek Resort Company, said he attended Vilars 60th birthday party at a private club in Manhattan. Spanish tenor Placido Domingo performed after dinner, he said. That was characteristic of Alberto, he said. When he did things, he did them first class.As the New York Philharmonic rehearsed for the Vail music festival on a Friday in July, Giovando recalled the evenings he had seen Vilar at the Met. The opera buff tended to stroll up to his front-row seat at the last second in what appeared to be a bid to maximize his visibility, Giovando said.Vilars style may have irritated some peers, but few dwelled on his wish to be in the spotlight. Vilar had developed a reputation as one of the performing arts worlds best friends, a rich and passionate supporter.With that in mind, Giovando approached Vilar in 2000 with a bold concept. The director and his colleagues sought to land the New York Philharmonic and persuade Vilar to give $1.5 million to help make it happen.Over breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan, Giovando presented the plan and the perks to go with the donation. The festival offered to name a music series after Vilar.He was always interested in the perks, as a lot of donors are, Giovando said. But he loved the idea of the New York Philharmonic out here.Based on Vilars help, the Vail Valley festival secured a deal with the New York orchestra.Vilar usually responded confidently to worries about the stock market or his level of donations.When Internet and tech stocks traded at eye-popping heights, East Wests Frampton asked Vilar if he thought the prices would continue to soar.Vilar replied: Were just in the first inning.
Vilar was wrong, and the investments managed by his San Francisco-based company started to tumble. Movers and shakers in the music and arts community wondered if he would be able to meet his pledges.Vilar ultimately was forced to renege on his promise to the Vail festival, and Giovando considered the worst-case scenario: Writing Zarin Mehta, the executive director of the New York Philharmonic, to explain that they would need to back out of the pact.By the fall of 2002, we knew he wouldnt be able to make it, so I went to my board and I said Look, we have this agreement. New York is coming, and we dont have any way to pay them, Giovando said. If we breach our agreement, fine, but well go down with an enormous amount of disgrace and egg on our face.Refusing to let the idea fail, Giovando and his colleagues established the Friends of the New York Philharmonic, raising money from private donors to help cover the annual cost.Vilars problems put others in tough positions, too.Although Vilar had pledged $3.5 million to revamp the Ford Amphitheater, he contributed only $2 million, said Cecilia Folz, president of the Vail Valley Foundation, which manages the venue as well as the Vilar Center.She called the shortfall a burden that forced the foundation to borrow money. Still, she stressed that he made substantial contributions were thankful for.The foundation dropped Vilar Pavilion from the formal name of the Vail venue, and in a higher-profile move, the Met removed his name from the Grand Tier after he failed to send all the money he had pledged.Another Colorado cause, the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, never received the $25 million he had promised.He was very generous, though in the end he couldnt fulfill all his commitments, the businessman Tang said. We all have the sense that he would have if he could have.The headlines only grew worse for Vilar. The opera lover in a way became a tragic figure himself.In 2005, Vilar was arrested and accused of spending $5 million of an investors money on donations. The charges later widened with prosecutors alleging that Vilar and Tanaka engaged in a scheme to defraud clients of millions of dollars. One investor was Lily Cates, mother of actress Phoebe Cates, court papers showed.Vilar and Tanaka pleaded not guilty.A 2006 story in the New Yorker magazine found much of the story he liked to tell about his background and his Cuban roots was fiction.Despite an impending trial and a history of health problems and severe back pains, Vilar has not lost his taste for music and entertainment.The New York Philharmonics Mehta observed the orchestra warm up from a seat in the back of the amphitheater. Asked about Vilar, Mehta said he recently received an invitation to attend an intimate concert at his Manhattan apartment. Vilar was featuring a young Russian violinist, Mehta said.I found it hard to communicate with him, said Mehta, adding that he had not seen Vilar in years. But he was always a perfectly good host.Nevertheless, Mehta said he was not able to go.The New York Philharmonic had its own Vilar issues to sort out. Vilar satisfied most, but not all, of his pledges to the orchestra, Mehta explained.Its a sad situation, he said.The Beaver Creek theater found itself in a different position. Vilar had followed through, making a significant multi-million dollar gift and elevating the level of performances in the valley.The venue replaced a lengthy bio on its Web site that called Vilar a futurist and an optimist, and detailed his roots in Cuba, his investment acumen and his love of skiing and music. Only a terse mention remains along with a Vilar quote: Culture enriches our life. What would life be without Mozart? as the saying goes.Still, the performing arts center must confront the possibility of having a guilty businessmans name on the brochures and the bronze sign out front.The foundations Folz said the board would examine the issue once it has all the facts and if questions are raised about funds he donated in Colorado. Everyone noted he could be acquitted.We live in America, and until proven guilty hes innocent, Folz said. We honor that. We also acknowledge that if he is found guilty and there are questions about how this happened, certainly we would take a look.ORourke, of the Beaver Creek Resort Company, said the only thing he knows Vilar is guilty of is being addicted to philanthropy. Beyond that, justice will have to run its course, he said.If Vilar prevails in court, it may be a moot point. Even if he loses, the name could remain. Although visitors occasionally make the connection, the majority of them are unfamiliar with Vilar, local leaders said.Most people dont even know him, ORourke said. For them, its just a name on a building. Had they met him, though, they would have appreciated what he has done for the Vail Valley.