Portrait of An Artist by Tom Fleming photos by Dellas drawing by Ellen Shepard
It’s a brutally cold March morning and the coffee shop...
It’s a brutally cold March morning and the coffee shop is abuzz with office workers warming their hands over steaming lattes and bemoaning the length and severity of Canadian winters. I am blowing a cooling breath over my third black coffee and laboring over my daily crossword. I’m joined by a somewhat John Lennonish looking man, carrying his own crossword and a coffee. The man is Michael Maxwell and he is stopping for a brief chat before heading home to work.
Michael is a musician. He is a prolific and eclectic composer, arranger and orchestrator whose works have been heard in a wide variety of venues around the world. He toils quietly in his Toronto home studio with a passion belied by his calm exterior. However, make no mistake about it, the soft voice and gentle demeanour only serve to mask the ardent love and respect he has for his craft and the dogged determination with which he approaches it. He soldiers on in the face of scant financial reward and minimal recognition compared to what someone of his capability could expect in the industry. That he has not become a total cynic is a testament to his belief in himself and an inspiration to those who choose the path less traveled.
Don’t misunderstand the intent of this scribbling. It is not a pity piece decrying the cruel fate of a starving artist. Far from it. It is a portrait of an incredibly interesting and talented individual and a glimpse at what it is like to dedicate oneself to a form of artistic expression that falls outside the boundaries of that which is popular with the masses. Michael is busy and productive doing the only thing he could conceive of doing and making a living at it. Not getting rich, but making a decent living. This is how he manages to do it.
While his first love and great passion is classical music, pigeon-holing his work into one area is an exercise in futility. Michael is proficient as a performer, arranger and composer in virtually every genre. And, while his major classical accomplishment is recognized worldwide by a small fraternity of knowledgeable music historians and educators, most people, if they know him at all, would know him from the tremendous volume of work he has produced in other areas. Those who have purchased recordings marketed by Solitudes (now called SOMERSET) which feature nature sounds and soothing arrangements of classical standards like Pachelbel’s “Canon” have probably listened to Michael’s work, because he is one of their most prolific composer/arranger/performers. If you have purchased any of the “Fisher Price Little People” series of children’s music, there’s a good chance you have heard his work. You may have listened to recordings of old big band jazz standards compiled and produced by Michael and released on the Avalon label. All of these recordings have been sold throughout the world. Countless millions have heard his work on literally hundreds of broadcast commercials for everything ranging from beer to automobiles, and on the accompanying soundtracks for countless radio and TV programs. On any one of these recordings Michael may be a musician (bass, keyboard and vocals), the composer, the orchestrator, producer or all of the above. Unless you check the credits or read the discography, you may have been listening to his work and never known it. That’s how he does it!
While keeping the wolf from the door by executing commercial projects, Michael still manages to devote time to his more classical passion. He has arranged, orchestrated, produced, and recorded the music of Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok, and Liszt and his orchestrations of Chopin were recorded for broadcast by the London Philharmonic. He composed and produced the score for the acclaimed documentary “Worlds Apart,” which won an award at the Cannes Film Festival and produced the world premier recording of “Ah, How Sweet it is to Love,” hitherto unheard theatre music by Purcell, Clarke and Eccles on the Hungaroton label.
This huge and eclectic body of work notwithstanding, Michael’s crowning achievement to date has been to complete and produce the world premiere performance of “De Profundis,” an unfinished masterpiece for piano and orchestra by Franz Liszt. This is the work that has gained him worldwide recognition among music historians and educators. It is also the work that underlines his passion and reveals the dogged determination and single–minded devotion that mark his accomplishments and define him as both a musician and a person.
Michael met an old friend (Philip Thomson, the pianist who recorded the work) at a Christmas party in 1987 and was told by Philip’s wife Tricia about an early “sketch” by Liszt that she had heard about. It was an orchestral/piano tone poem based on Psalm 130 “Out of the Depths” and it had never been completed. Subsequently, Tricia acquired a copy of it from the Goethe and Schiller Archive in Weimar, Germany and showed it to him. He was thunderstruck to discover that it was far more than a sketch. It was a nearly completed masterwork that had been sitting in relative obscurity since 1834 and in his opinion was crying out for completion. At this point, he shelved all his projects and focused exclusively on his new mission: “To reconstruct this 35 minute long masterpiece and provide a workable ending for it that was consistent with the way Liszt might have conceived it at that stage in his composing career.”
He sought the advice of Liszt scholar Dr. Alan Walker, author of the definitive three volume biography of Franz Liszt, who agreed with his assessment of the unfinished work. Armed with Walker’s encouragement and a Canada Council grant, he flew to Weimar to launch what became a two year quest. He spent a week studying the original score and labouring over deciphering Liszt’s almost illegible handwriting. He made extensive notes on his own holographic copy and returned home to tackle the job of completion. In addition to composing the ending, he edited all the tempo, phrasing, and dynamic markings completing what has been lauded as the definitive version (of three) of the completed masterpiece.
The final work was recorded in Budapest in August 1991 and released world-wide a month later on the Hungaroton label. Two days later, the world concert premiere was performed, appropriately, in the Franz Liszt Academy, also in Budapest. It has since been performed at several international festivals and competitions and was premiered in the United States in Washington D.C. in October 1993 and continues to garner critical acclaim everywhere it is performed.
“Everyone is agog in London (where) I’ve had a copy of the finished score with me for the past two weeks and I think (Maxwell) has done a splendid piece of work. He deserves the Order of Canada simply for deciphering Liszt’s handwriting”
-Dr. Alan Walker (World-renowned Liszt Biographer)
“Maxwell’s labour of love Liszt’s (De Profundis)...is more successfully balanced (than other attempts at completion)”
-Gramophone, London, England
“(De Profundis) is an exceptional work of attractively layered originality that will be of some consequence in the years to come.”
“It is rare to find one composer identifying so completely with the tonal world of another...(Maxwell’s) edition captures the
essence of Liszt.”
-Classical Music Magazine
Michael closes his newspaper containing the now completed crossword, rises, tosses his crumpled coffee cup in the waste receptacle and with a brief, “Catch ya later,” ventures out into the cold winter air. Once home, likely as not, he’ll plug away at another commercial or yet another Solitudes project. I realize that I’ve probably been daydreaming my way through our entire conversation as I pondered his remarkable accomplishments.