Nicholas Maw's "Spring Music" is the piece that everyone wanted the composer to write and that he resolutely refused to. That he finally relented will be obvious tomorrow and Friday evenings when the Baltimore Symphony and conductor Christopher Seaman perform it.
"There were an endless series of requests from conductors, publishers and orchestral managers for something that was fairly short and that made a nice beginning for a program," says Maw, a 56-year-old British-born, Washington resident. "I thought to myself, 'one doesn't write music for those reasons!' "
But Maw eventually realized that most great composers wrote music for exactly such practical reasons. "It was one of my biggest learning experiences and it's become one of my most performed pieces," he says.
The practical reasons that inspired the 13-minute "Spring Music" couldn't be more different than the quixotic, personal idealism that inspired what is perhaps Maw's masterpiece -- "Odyssey," whose 96 minute duration (played without a break) make it the longest piece of symphonic music ever written. Because of its length and difficulty, "Odyssey" -- which Maw began in 1972 and completed in 1987 -- has been performed in its entirety only once.
"I'm living in hope," he says when asked if he ever expects to hear it again.
But the work has made an enormous impression on records. The recording of "Odyssey" made by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra that was released two months ago has become a best seller in Great Britain. Even more remarkably, it has become -- without so much as a review in the United States -- a hot-selling item in this country where Maw is much less well-known than in his native land.
It was a record that EMI did not want to make. Huge symphonic pieces that require enormous orchestras and expensive rehearsal time and that fill two CDs do not exactly sell well unless they're by composers named Mahler or Bruckner. But Rattle, the most important native-born conductor in Great Britain and a mainstay of EMI's catalogue, refused to sign a new contract unless he could record "Odyssey."
"It was a magnificent gesture and I will be grateful to Simon for the rest of my life," Maw says.
The reason for "Odyssey's" surprising popularity is that there is an appetite -- in all the arts -- for works that have grandeur and scale. Until quite recently, most of the music written after World War II was like sculpture -- intricately made and written to be observed and admired rather than loved.
"It's what I call sculptural music," Maw says. "You walk around it, but you don't walk or live through it. All of my music has tried to do very basic things -- like provide a structure through which you travel that is filled with personal and memorable events and with real melodic material. The old music used to satisfy the need for those things, and I don't think that listeners ever stopped wanting them."
The BSO will perform Maw's work along with Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" at 8:15 p.m. Thursday and Friday in Meyerhoff Hall. Call 783-8000.