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Bruce Carlson's friends remember musical visionary

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Bruce Carlson
Bruce Carlson, the longtime executive director of the Schubert Club, has died after a battle with leukemia. This photo was taken in June 2006.
Photo courtesy of the Schubert Club

The Schubert Club was started 125 years ago by a group of women who wanted to bring culture to prairie life, but it wasn't until 38 years ago that the club hired its first staffer. Bruce Carlson's first assignment was to raise enough money to pay his own salary. That he did -- and quite a bit more. 

Former Schubert Club Board Chair Terry Hoffman says Carlson had no fear asking important people for money, or asking world-class musicians to perform in St. Paul.

"He was just a real people person. Everybody loved him, and when he walked into a room, people smiled," Hoffman remembered. "They always knew he was up to something and had creative ideas. So I'll just remember him standing in a crowd of people with his bow tie, enjoying the heck out of a beautiful concert that he had arranged for."

Most important series, in my experience of the music business, are made so because of the devotion of one person, and Bruce Carlson was certainly that person.

Carlson was a character. He kept a collection of antique outboard motors in his office, and owned 25 old wooden boats. He always wore a bow tie, and his business suits ranged in color far beyond the traditional black and blue. 

But underneath his fun-loving demeanor was a serious love of music. The Schubert Club was created to organize classical music recitals, but under Carlson the breadth of the club's work grew to include two museum collections, one of musical instruments, and another of manuscripts. 

He co-founded the Schubert Club Gamelan Ensemble, which performs classical music of Indonesia. He developed a free music lesson program for kids in need, and he commissioned new works. 

Dominick Argento wrote a song cycle for the Schubert Club, which won him a Pulitzer Prize. He credits Carlson.

"In my own personal case, I can tell you that in writing them for him, and that club and that audience, I think I write better than I do normally under other commissions or conditions, and it has to do with the fact that I know that he is going to be the most discerning listener," Argento said.

Not only did Carlson commission composers, he also commissioned writers, like Patricia Hampl. Hampl knew Carlson for more than 25 years, and describes him as an impresario. He invited her to write essays on several occasions to be included in books about the Schubert Club.

"I always felt somehow when I went downtown to have lunch with Bruce that I was actually going to Manhattan -- that I was really going to New York and speaking to someone who was in touch with the whole world," Hampl said.

Hampl says most cities the size of St. Paul once had music clubs -- the Mozart club, or the Brahms club. But now most of them are gone, and she says none of them have achieved the status and quality of the Schubert Club. 

Internationally renowned singer Frederica Von Stade performed several times for the Schubert Club. She says Carlson was one of those few men who cared passionately both for his musicians, and for his audiences. 

"Most important series, in my experience of the music business, are made so because of the devotion of one person, and Bruce Carlson was certainly that person," she said. "I wish I could come and sing a song for him - you know he just gave so much to all his singers, and I think he really treasured us and spoiled us."

Carlson died Friday of complications from leukemia.  Despite doctors orders to take it easy, in the last weeks he continued to come into work, enthusiastic as always. 

"He looked fabulous - thin, but fabulous," Hampl said. "And he said 'Everybody tells me I have such a good tan, but really it's the radiation. But I'll take what I can get.' And I said, 'How do you feel, really?' And he just looked me right in the eye and said, 'Grateful, I feel really grateful.' And I thought, that's Bruce. That's the last time I saw him."

If Bruce Carlson had any regrets, it was probably this -- that he won't be able to mix with people and share in the great music next year as the Schubert Club celebrates its 125th season.