‘A Very Rare and Unusual Talent’
Teen’s Music Strikes Emotional Chords Beyond His Years
Every Saturday at 3:30 a.m., the Maican family pulls out of its Bethesda driveway and heads to New York City. When they arrive at Lincoln Center, Valerica and Marcel Maican feed the parking meters for 11 hours while their son takes private lessons and attends classes at the prestigious Juilliard School. They return home about midnight, after nearly 24 hours on the road and an additional 490 miles on their Honda minivan.
They have made the grueling trip for six years and have few complaints. For Tudor Dominik Maican and his parents, it is simply the path to becoming a great composer.
At 17, the Winston Churchill High School senior has written six symphonies, five chamber music pieces, nine pieces for stringed instruments, nine piano compositions, two works for brass ensembles and four songs for children’s choirs. He has received commissions of $5,000 for his work.
A Mass he recently composed for an Orthodox Christian church in Potomac is so complex that the church must bring in a bigger choir. Dumbarton Concerts, a chamber music series in Georgetown, made him its youngest composer in residence. A Washington Post critic described a 15-minute piano piece Maican wrote as having “a melancholic and lyrical sound that comes right out of Chopin and Debussy.”
Although talented child musicians are not unusual, Maican’s teachers say only a few young composers are considered truly gifted. A 14-year-old Connecticut boy is also receiving national attention for his symphonies, including one recently recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. In Juilliard’s pre-college division, where alumni include Yo-Yo Ma and teachers see no shortage of aptitude, Maican’s music is turning heads.
“Every few years one person stands out above the rest,” said Ira Taxin, Maican’s composition teacher, who has worked with Juilliard students for 25 years. “Dominik is a very rare and unusual talent.”
“He’s probably the most remarkable young man I’ve come across,” said Olegna Fuschi, a Juilliard piano teacher for 26 years.
Such comments make Maican want to change the subject. He’s not one for wunderkind talk. His high school friends know he composes, he said, but he doesn’t tell them about the more than 50 national and international awards on his five-page curriculum vitae.
“It’s too much attention,” he said. “I just don’t like the, ‘Oh my God, he’s a composer, uh-oh.’ ”
His intense but aw-shucks demeanor is prone to understatement. He described his Advanced Placement music theory class at Churchill as “a little slow.” So why take it? “I need my arts credit.”
As Connie Zimmer, executive director of Dumbarton Concerts, said, “I don’t think he realizes how talented he is.”
To be sure, Maican’s teachers say, the teenager needs more experience writing for full orchestras. He must fine-tune his own style, they say, and learn to maintain a consistent one throughout his pieces — both challenging for even veteran composers. As with any young talent, there remains the question of whether he will continue his meteoric rise or flame out.
Maican’s teachers and fans say he seems energized by his music without being swallowed by his success. Most striking, they say, is the emotional depth of his work that resonates with audiences and belies his age.
After three decades with Dumbarton Concerts, Zimmer is used to hearing, “You have to hear this kid’s music.” When she popped in a CD a friend had given her of then-15-yearold Maican’s compositions, she expected the kind of technically sound but uninteresting music she usually hears from young composers.
Instead, she said, “I was blown away. I was so surprised by how mature it was. It was beautifully structured and dramatic. It didn’t make sense to me that such beautiful music came from this kid.”
Zimmer said that most young composers lack the life experience to make interesting music but that Maican’s is “dramatic” and “soulful.”
“Where does that soulfulness come from?” Zimmer said. “How does a kid who’s never had his heart broken have that poetry and soul to the music?”
Ask Maican and he says his compositions simply reflect melodies in his head and a passion for music. Any brokenhearted inspiration? “Not yet,” he said.
Born on Beethoven’s birthday, he began piano lessons with his mother when he was 3. He wrote his first songs — a collection about elephants, monkeys and other animals he’d seen at the National Zoo — in first grade. His parents said their only child soon became obsessed. He asked to leave birthday parties and soccer games early. “I have to finish my symphony,” he would say in a childish voice, using “symphony” for any piece of music. He spent three to four hours a day composing.
“I’d try to drag him out to do sports,” Marcel Maican said. “I thought: ‘He’s a boy. He should be out there. This is too long for him [at the piano] at his age.’ ”
Dominik Maican grew up surrounded by music, in a home with four pianos. His mother, a prominent Romanian composer, teaches piano lessons. His father plays trombone and conducts orchestras and jazz bands at three Washington-area schools.
Still, Valerica Maican said she reminded her son frequently that success requires “1 percent talent and 99 percent work.” His competitive nature took hold, she said. Even as a young boy, he tried to outplay her older students.
At the piano, Dominik Maican seems to transform from a reserved teenager into an earnest junior music professor. He explained French composer Claude Debussy’s influence on him: “I just love his harmonies and everything he writes. They’re impressionistic and terribly French — very transparent harmonies, nothing really concrete, very scarce on cadences.”
He composes at the keyboard, humming a melody while one hand experiments with different chords and the other holds a pencil with an oversize pink eraser. He pauses only to write new notes or erase others.
While writing a “sketch” of a symphony recently, he explained how he composed for different instruments.
“At this point, I have a really nice melody up here,” he said, before humming and playing a few notes.
“But I need a little jump coming off this note. Brass!” he exclaimed as his fingers came down on a rich, full chord.
Melodies come to him in the middle of the night, even on the school bus, he said. He spends at least six hours a day at the piano.
Taxin at Juilliard said the result is music that “resonates with human emotion.”
“If you ask me why Beethoven is great, I’d give the same answer,” Taxin said. “I’m not comparing Dominik to Beethoven, but the music translates immediately to the human experience. Dominik has the ability to do that. It’s a gift.”
Competing for Maican’s keyboard time lately have been school work and college applications. He said he hopes to study music and science at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, lives in Alexandria, commissioned one of Maican’s piano pieces when he was 15.
The teenager’s melodies and harmony “reach your soul,” Cicolani said.
He said he expects that Maican’s music will only get more expressive as he grows older and encounters the deep emotions and pain that have inspired the best poets and artists.
“You sense that this lad is going somewhere with his music,” Cicolani said. “He just needs to lose a few girlfriends.” Columbia, Brown or a handful of other top universities.
Angelo Cicolani, a consultant who
At 17, Tudor Dominik Maican has written more than 30 works, which he says reflect his passion for music.
Tudor Dominik Maican, who was born on Beethoven’s birthday, began piano lessons at 3 and wrote his first songs, a collection about animals at the National Zoo, in first grade.