- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

Nicholas Maw may very well be the greatest contemporary composer most concertgoers have never heard of. Defying the dominant academic tradition throughout most of his career, he has composed a body of listenable, tuneful music — contemporary to be sure, but not the nasty 12-tone stuff that has driven generations from the concert hall whenever a living composer is on the menu. Yet he has paid a price for this in terms of his reputation in the insular world that classical music became in the latter half of the 20th century.

Mr. Maw is in town this week for the Washington National Opera’s American premiere of “Sophie’s Choice.” His 2002 opera is based on the William Styron novel that later was made into an important film featuring Meryl Streep in her Academy Award-winning role as an Auschwitz survivor with a tragic secret.

Actually, Mr. Maw is usually in town. Though he summers in France, the British-born composer lives unobtrusively right here in Takoma Park for much of the year, teaching just down the road at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, where he is a professor of composition.

Born in 1935 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, in the United Kingdom, Mr. Maw studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London in the 1950s and in Paris, briefly, with Nadia Boulanger and also with one of Arnold Schoenberg’s star pupils, Max Deutsch.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Maw’s early compositions were rooted in atonality, but he soon abandoned that approach. “To me, this kind of theory produced music that was simply not expressive. It was not memorable to most people, nor was it connected in any way to all the significant music of the past,” he says. “Rather, it was attached to a modernism that wanted to forget about all artists, all composers of the past. But I greatly admired these composers.”

Mr. Maw determined that he would depart from this seemingly preordained compositional path to create music that was “very expressive, provided melodies, that was full of desire, that had strong melodic elements.”

“But I suffered for this decision,” he says with a touch of bitterness.

Mr. Maw discusses his compositional technique in general terms, regarding his music as expressive, sometimes dissonant; melodic, yet not adhering to a specific key. It is distinctly modern but does not reject the trajectory of Western musical tradition.

Compositions such as his “Scenes and Arias” from 1962 proved popular with audiences but gained little traction with the press or in academia. “Most composers and critics decided they didn’t have any interest in what I was doing,” he says. “So it didn’t get much attention” in journals or the press.

The key to the problem was the rigid conformity of those in the classical music community, most of whom felt it necessary to make a clean and permanent break with the past. “If you didn’t believe in this,” Mr. Maw says, “then you simply could not be taken seriously as a composer. That slowly began to change in the 1970s as more composers started being attracted again to those elements that were significant in the past.”

Fortunately, there is a “far greater acceptance of a variety of musical styles today,” he observes, and, not coincidentally, far greater acceptance for a composer who never sneered at his audience.

Mr. Maw finally attracted considerable attention with his gigantic one-movement work, “Odyssey.” Written over a lengthy period of time, the 96-minute work premiered in 1987. It was recorded by Sir Simon Rattle and the Birmingham Symphony and nominated for a Grammy in 1992. Meanwhile, the composer already had begun to undertake a very different project, a new opera of great complexity.

Mr. Maw already had penned two operas, “One Man Show” (1964) and “The Rising of the Moon” (1967-70). He describes his experiences with theaters and eccentric directors during their production as “not very pleasant. … I was depressed by what happened.” He vowed never to write another opera.

However, in the early 1990s, he chanced to rent a videotape of “Sophie”s Choice” (made in 1982) and was consumed by its epic sweep and emotional power as well as its chilling relevance to our own tempestuous times. Forgetting his earlier vow, he immediately sensed that this was the stuff from which opera is made and got in touch with the author.

He was stunned to discover that in spite of the film, William Styron still held all rights to his novel, which is increasingly uncommon. Mr. Styron declined to pen a libretto but gave the composer a free hand to use the novel’s material. So Mr. Maw penned his own libretto. He freely admits that “nearly all” of it uses the novelist’s own words, and “very little of it is in mine.”

London audiences loved Mr. Maw’s music during the Covent Garden premiere of “Sophie?s Choice,” and it played to sold-out performances. Predictably, many critics were less enthusiastic, panning the new opera for its great length — more than four hours.

Enter Placido Domingo. His preference for giving modern operas a fresh hearing is already well-known to audiences here. And indeed, “Sophie’s” seems like an eerily appropriate choice, particularly in a 21st-century America whose soldiers and civilians are daily confronting the numbing possibility of a new, far broader kind of holocaust.

Consulting with two German opera companies that already had produced the work, the WNO worked with the composer to tighten things a bit from the original to gain more focus for these performances. “I had already done slight revisions, taking a small amount of material out,” Mr. Maw remembers. “We tried this for productions in Berlin and Vienna. Given the subject matter, I was worried that the opera might be considered terrible or dangerous in these cities, but it was enthusiastically received.”

Last fall, Mr. Maw took some more out of it, and its total running time is about three hours and 10 minutes. The London production’s frequent set changes also have been eliminated for the American premiere, which employs a cost-saving one-set-fits-all approach.

This trimmed-down Washington National Opera production of “Sophie’s Choice,” which opened Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center Opera House, brings back members of the original London cast, including mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager in the title role, tenor Gordon Gietz as Stingo and baritone Rod Gilfry as the increasingly deranged Nathan Landau. “They are wonderful singers, simply outstanding,” says Mr. Maw, who is delighted to have them back. The production is being directed by Markus Bothe, who was also involved with the opera’s Continental productions.

Mr. Maw is excited to have the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s soon-to-be music director Marin Alsop in the orchestra pit for the American premiere. “She is greatly admired in Britain,” he says, “for her outstanding work with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and for her work in championing modern composers. I believe she will be a great success in Baltimore. It is simply wonderful that she is conducting these performances.”

Miss Alsop was equally complimentary toward Mr. Maw in an interview with this newspaper earlier this year. “His score is stunningly beautiful, in the Romantic tradition,” she said. “The company is superb, and I’m very much looking forward to this.”

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