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20.5.09

Nicholas Maw, 73

Nicholas Maw
Nicholas Maw (1935-2009)

available at Amazon
Odyssey
Tim Smith reports the sad news that Nicholas Maw has died. The British-born composer has made his home here in Washington (specifically, in Takoma Park) for the last several years, while teaching at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Maw first came across the Ionarts radar when Jens reviewed a concert by the Left Bank Concert Society in 2004, which included Maw's 1982 piece for flute, Night Thoughts, introduced by the composer himself. In 2006, the troops from Peabody celebrated Maw's 70th birthday, at a concert of his music which we were unfortunately not able to hear. Of course, Maw is perhaps most famous for his mammoth 1980s orchestral work Odyssey, which we would love to review live sometime soon (paging Marin Alsop and Christoph Eschenbach).

We really came to admire Maw's work in 2006, when Washington National Opera gave the American premiere of the composer's equally mammoth opera (even after it was scaled down somewhat), Sophie's Choice. The work was not without its flaws, especially its unwieldy libretto, but there were many moments of great beauty in a work of tragic heft. Here are a few thoughts from my review of the final performance:
In the first act, Sophie's "I grew up in the beautiful city of Cracow" is a beautiful extended aria relating her (fake) memories of a happy childhood. As a nostalgic experience of a beloved place, it ranks up there with other classic examples of the genre, like Germont's "Di Provenza il mar" in La Traviata. The harp arpeggiation stands in for the mother's piano, wafting through the night air up to little Sophie's room, while the conclusion builds to an impressive climax and recedes. That aria is answered in the same act by Nathan's showtime aria ("This is my show!"), which will probably always be known as the "Iron Aria" ("massive infusions of iron"). It is as comic as Sophie's piece is serious.
The success of the opera was due in large part to the memorable performance of Angelika Kirchschlager, who created the title role and owned it in three subsequent national premieres. As I wrote then, "her performance will take its place in my mind next to the terrifyingly reserved one of Meryl Streep in the movie made from the same novel."

Other appreciations:
The Telegraph | Michael White | New York Times | Gramophone | Washington Post

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