St. Petersburg Times: Weekend

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The birth of a symphony

Florida West Coast Symphony premieres Quantumsymphony, a new work by David Carlson.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000

Composer David Carlson claims not to be particularly science-minded, but he titled his latest work Quantumsymphony and wrote in a program note that it is his "poetic response to science's influence on art and indeed the meaning of our existence."

Carlson's three-movement, 30-minute work will be premiered this weekend by Florida West Coast Symphony, Leif Bjaland conducting. The program also includes J.C. Bach's Symphony No. 5 and Brahms' Double Concerto, with Susanna Henkel, violin, and her father, Christoph Henkel, cello.

The title for Carlson's symphony was inspired by a segment of the slow middle movement.

"The first movement and the last movement were composed first, and there was a moment at the very dead center of the piece where I wanted a completely different effect, something from another world," he said. "What I had written sounded very familiar to me, but for the longest time, I couldn't place it. Finally I woke up in the middle of night and realized I had written it when I was a kid, when I was 15 and under the influence of Bach and Stravinsky. It's a sketch of something I never ended up using."

The composer decided to keep the half-minute passage from his adolescence in the symphony but with a twist: It was recorded by the orchestra and will be played back on tape during the performance.

"It's just a small moment of mystical music from the past," Carlson said. "I thought that was very much like quantum physics when time is stretched and one thing exists simultaneously in two different time periods, meaning me at 15 and me at 48 at the same time in a work."

Quantumsymphony is the first commissioned work in 16 years by Florida West Coast Symphony. It was co-commissioned by the Waterbury (Conn.) Symphony, where Bjaland is also music director and will conduct the work again in March. Composer and conductor have known each other since the 1980s, when Carlson was on the operations staff of the San Francisco Symphony and Bjaland was associate conductor there.

Carlson, who lives in San Francisco, has been a full-time composer since 1991. He is in Sarasota this week for rehearsals and the concerts.

His catalog of published works includes two operas and more than a dozen other pieces for orchestra or chamber music ensemble. They have been performed by the San Francisco Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Symphony, Utah Opera, Glimmerglass Opera and Opera Theatre of St. Louis, among others.

Quantumsymphony is his first foray into the form forever associated with titans such as Beethoven and Brahms, Mahler and Shostakovich.

"It's a pretty daunting idea to think that you would even put yourself in that league," Carlson said. "From a practical standpoint, another thing is that very few orchestras are going to do a modern symphony. I'm still amazed that I'm having an actual symphony performed."

Carlson hopes potential listeners don't get the wrong idea from his title. "The only thing I'm a little leery of is that people will hear Quantumsymphony and think, "Oh, another mathematical piece,' or of something composed in a serial way, and it's anything but that," he said.

"I think it's good, I really do. I think it might even be a bit of an audience pleaser in the sense that it's a full-blooded piece. It isn't one of those modern pieces in an idiom you can't grasp."


Florida West Coast Symphony performs at 8 p.m Friday and 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday at Van Wezel Hall in Sarasota. Tickets: $20-$50. (941) 953-3434.

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