Gallops and Mazurkas

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    One might think the only link between classical music and horseback riding is the horsehair in string players’ bows.

    Not so. Pianist and composer Carter Larsen will play a gala concert July 25 at Smothers Theatre to benefit the 25-year-old Pepperdine University Equestrian Education Center. “Those people are as serious about what they’re doing — and classical riding is an art — as I am about what I’m doing. They’re dedicated and enlightened people,” he says.

    Larsen currently lives and works in Malibu, but his connection to the equestrian center arose in London, where he was studying piano with Ruth Nye, wife of Ross Nye, head of Pepperdine’s exchange program in London. Larsen was introduced to Cheryl Wyllie, head of the dressage program at the university. Jim Wyllie, Cheryl’s father, founded the center when Pepperdine moved to Malibu in 1972 — one of the first physical education programs available to the students.

    Now, the center seeks to raise $150,000 to modernize the stables, tack room and ring at the 26-horse center, as well as to build an indoor arena. “We’re obviously not going to raise it in one night,” says Larsen, “but the concert will kick off the fund- raising drive.”

    Silver tickets at $50 per person include a reception and silent auction prior to the concert; gold tickets at $100 include premium theater seating and a post-concert dessert party at Granita.

    Born and raised in San Francisco, Larsen composed in his teens, then studied composition under John Adams at the San Francisco Conservatory. He was “keen” on piano when he was young, but says, “If you had asked me when I was 10, I would have said I wanted to be a scientist.” As the youngest composing student at the Aspen music festival, he says, “That’s when it started for me. That’s also when I got my taste for the mountains in the summer.” Larsen owns a home in Gstaad, Switzerland.

    Post-conservatory, he studied piano with Peter Feuchtwanger in London, where required reading was “Zen and the Art of Archery” in order to unlearn bad musical habits.

    Larsen found popularity in London, staying for 18 years. “They really appreciate all this music there,” he says. “But they don’t know anything about film.” The English say they like his music, Larsen notes, but once they are told the writing is contemporary, “they switch off.”

    Larsen has performed as a soloist with The Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras and has recorded the classical repertoire, as well as his own works. He recently made his conducting debut with the Harrow Symphony Orchestra in “Swan Lake,” but modestly says, “An opera conductor is the real thing.” Larsen conducts by memory, a feat he claims only 20 percent of conductors care to attempt.

    The London Philharmonic has played his film music, with Larsen soloing, to coincide with the release of his films and soundtrack albums. “I have no doubt that if Mozart were alive, he would be writing film music,” Larsen says. “His greatest music was his operas. That’s the nearest equivalent we have today.” He contends that contemporary film music relies on computers, thus requiring very little musicianship. He explains, “Music began with the voice. The piano is designed on the vibration of strings, which is the same as the vocal cords. When you get away from that, it’s not human.” He strives to write music that people want to listen to.

    He composed, scored and served as music supervisor for the films “Scarecrow” and “Pierced Heart.” Currently, he is writing a score based on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which he hopes will establish Beethoven’s longevity over the century. “I see it as a way of reaching a larger audience with the music. I see that as a responsibility.

    “If you’re to go back to the 19th century, all the pianists also were composers. So I’m a throwback to the last century. That tradition has been killed by the homogenization and the pigeonholing of 20th century musicians. The performer is separate from a composer, and the composer is separate from the audience and performer. There’s no direct link between the person composing the music and the audience.”

    Larsen favors European concert halls. “American halls are dryer,” he claims. “The music can’t breathe, and that has an effect on you, but a seasoned performer can play in different halls and immediately change for the acoustics. The mistake musicians make is thinking, ‘It’s a big hall, I have to bang around.’ I’m from a school that delineates the voices, where subtlety is an important part of the music.”

    The difference between American and European musicians is expression, according to Larsen. “American recordings are more concerned with the technical — striving for perfection.” He says he focuses on expression. “That’s from being a composer.”

    His examples return to Liszt: “He was the equivalent of some huge rock star. He had the equivalent popularity of more than Princess Diana. The advent of pop culture blew classical out the window. But classical also did that itself by alienating audiences. Pop music was born because nobody wanted to listen to the stuff everyone else was writing.”

    His Pepperdine program should include Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G sharp, Chopin’s Fantasia in f, Saint-Sans’ Mazurka in g (which Larsen says he rediscovered while researching through archives in Austria) and Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli, as well as a few of Larsen’s compositions.

    Carter Larsen appears in recital July 25 to benefit the Pepperdine University Equestrian Education Center, reception and silent auction 6:30 p.m., concert at 8 p.m., at Smothers Theatre, Pepperdine University; post-performance reception follows. Telephone 310/456-4546.