Carter Larsen: Classical rock star

Malibu resident Carter Larsen plays selections from his magnum opus, “Fantasia Suite,” at a private concert Saturday night. It was a preview of his upcoming Shanghai performance to take place June 21. Photo by Jim Steinfelt

Malibu classical composer and concert pianist Carter Larsen will mark the Asian launch of his first Carter Larsen Competition at a performance in Shanghai June 21 that will be broadcast to an estimated audience of half a billion people.

In a private concert at the home of arts philanthropist Kara Fox in Santa Monica last weekend, Larsen gave a preview of the upcoming Shanghai concert that will feature traditional works of classical composers like Chopin and Liszt, in addition to examples of his own ongoing magnum opus, “Fantasia Suite.”

“It’s a juried competition open to artists of all ages and nationalities,” Larsen said of what’s being billed as the First International Hollywood Piano Competition.

Winners will get the opportunity to perform a filmed concert at Paramount Studios to an audience of Hollywood producers and directors. The top three winners will be awarded a recording contract for Sony and Universal, along with cash. The grand prizewinner receives $10,000 and a chance to record a music video in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Larsen’s musical vision has been embraced in China where classical Western music has literally exploded, with upward of a billion active listeners and a burgeoning market of 100 million new young musicians picking up violins and tickling the ivories daily.

His “Fantasia Suite” represents a unique approach to classical composing, which entails improvising on classical neo-romantic themes, much like, Larsen said, Chopin or Mozart composed back in the day.

This past Saturday’s concert, however, wasn’t restricted to a typical Los Angeles Philharmonic audience. Tina Guo, who plays electric cello in a metal band, was there to take in the arpeggios.

“I just love Carter’s music,” Guo said. “His romantic era sound is so expressive and emotional. Baroque rocks.”

The concert was introduced by Omega Medina, former senior manager of the classical Grammy Awards, who is also jury president for the competition.

“I think Carter’s ‘Fantasia Suite’ is a brilliant fusion of romantic Western master composers with contemporary musical elements,” Medina said. “This is a multimedia project that includes TV broadcasts, live video streams, podcasts. I mean, you can reach so many people by approaching music this way. You have to relate to the era and I’m happy that Carter has been able to take this project outside of the typical concert hall without compromising any of the artistic integrity.”

Larsen began with a composition of his own from “Fantasia Suite,” titled “Ethereal Nights.” Rippling glissandos and a hint of syncopation danced from the keys evoking water tumbling over a rocky stream.

Hostess Fox houses one of Larsen’s composing pianos in her home, an advantage that allows her to “get dressed to the sound of him creating.

“Carter’s music is so graceful,” Fox said. “When he plays, he is connected to the music on a very deep level.”

Larsen’s performance of his “Elegy” and “Spectrums of Triumph” ran the spectrum of delicate wistfulness to running darkness to thunderous conquest. Medina applauded his challenging approach to composing.

“You don’t often find classically trained musicians who will improvise like Carter because it’s out of their comfort zone,” she said. “You expect chords to resolve in a certain way and they don’t. Because he fuses the old with the new, it invites you to listen differently.”

Indeed, Larsen invited his audience to propose two different words that he would blend musically into a theme. “Correction” and “Waterfall” sounded like a cascade that shifts midstream.

Speaking of the Shanghai concert, Medina said that musical instruction is now part of every Chinese school child’s curriculum.

“So, where do you think tomorrow’s musicians will come from?” she asked. “Here in the U.S. we must work to make music an everyday part of our children’s curricula and lives so that we don’t lose that universe that music gives.”

Medina pointed out that Larsen was always a fan of pop music and that his eclectic approach led him to composing for film and television, including “The Mark of Zorro,” and projects for PBS and the BBC. He studied with French composer and professor Nadia Boulanger, who was also a mentor to the legendary producer Quincy Jones.

“And you know what Quincy said,” Medina said. “There’s only two kinds of music-good and bad.”

The audience Saturday seemed to think that Larsen’s music fell into the former category. They listened, rapt, while music flew from his fingers and a dialogue of chords progressed throughout the night.

“Carter’s music is thrilling, but it’s easy to listen to,” Medina said. “It’s exacting, but improvisational. He is a true neo-romantic. But he’s also a classical rock star.”

More information about Carter Larsen’s music and the international competition can be found online at