America lost one of its great motivating forces in music with the passing of Lukas Foss in New York City on February 1, 2009, at the age of 86. Born in Germany, Foss studied music in Europe before immigrating with his family to the United States on the eve of World War in 1937; he became a citizen of the United States in 1942, and his best-known work is considered inseparable from the grand, vernacular tradition of American concert music. Dashing, handsome, and already composing, the youthful Foss studied conducting with Serge Koussevitzky and fell in with the young, New York-Tanglewood crowd associated with Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, and mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel. Foss and Bernstein would prove lifelong friends, and one of Leonard Bernstein's first commercial recordings as conductor of the New York Philharmonic would be of Foss' cantata Song of Songs (1946), featuring Tourel, a work widely praised at the time.
In 1953, Foss relocated to Los Angeles, replacing Arnold Schoenberg as music professor at UCLA. Rather than adopting the serial line espoused by Schoenberg, Foss began to adopt strategies of controlled improvisation and game theory into his compositions, and these ideas were put into practice by the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble, a group which Foss founded. He also utilized this approach in large works such as Time Cycle (1960), premiered by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, and Paradigm (1968). He was also a pioneer in the distinctively post-modern conceit of musical deconstruction, particularly in his Baroque Variations (1967). Foss' shift to experimental composition was regarded in some quarters as amounting to casting off the early, American neoclassic vein that made his reputation in favor of chaos.
However, Foss was too busy building an orchestra to care much about what his detractors were saying. In 1963, Foss accepted the post of music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, and also took up teaching at SUNY Buffalo. Utilizing one institution to facilitate the other and vice versa, he raised the profile of the city of Buffalo as a bastion of new music and helped to establish the Buffalo Philharmonic as the regional American equivalent of a world class orchestra. Foss' advocacy had a two-pronged effect: he showed that there was no reason that a mid-size American city like Buffalo couldn't have an orchestra of the quality of Boston, Chicago, or New York, and that an expert conductor could have a decent career leading such orchestras, challenging -- if not quite dispelling -- the perceived wisdom that leading a minor American orchestra was the bane of those "on their way up, or on their way down." The significance of this is heightened when one considers that Foss' Buffalo appointment was made in 1963, only five years after the New York Philharmonic broke a major barrier by hiring its first American-born conductor: Leonard Bernstein.
Foss' intense involvement in new music, however, made him a lightning rod for controversy in Buffalo, and in 1971 he joined the Brooklyn Philharmonia. Over the course of two decades he transformed it into the Brooklyn Philharmonic, building another contender, and during that time Foss also led orchestras in Milwaukee and Jerusalem. After stepping down from the Brooklyn post in 1990, Foss retired from conducting, concentrating mainly on composition and teaching at Boston University. Foss' late music represented a trend back towards his early style, but with modifications. "I can be just as crazy tonally as I was before atonally," said Foss in a 1997 interview, "crazy in the sense of unexpected." The late English critic Wilfred Mellers once commented that Foss' work represented "a pocket history of American music during the 20th century." Foss' output was so varied and prodigious that it is hard to evaluate the effect of it so soon in the wake of his passing, but in addition to the works already mentioned, his cantata The Prairie (1944) has enjoyed a successful revival in recent years. His opera The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1949) and the chamber work Echoi (1963) represent the opposite poles of his achievement, ranging from populist Americana to an incisive, challenging, visionary strain. Foss' early piano pieces have recently gained some prestige as an important cycle, and were, in a very short period of time, recorded by three different record companies, leading to a squabble between them as to just who recorded the cycle first.
Lukas Foss' recorded output, while spotty, is significant. In 1956, Foss led the Zimbler Sinfonietta in one of the first recordings of Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question. Before Michael Tilson Thomas weighed in on the issue, Foss' recordings of Carl Ruggles' music with the Buffalo Philharmonic were considered the gold standard. Towards the end of his long conducting career, Foss was able to record a cross section of his key work with the Milwaukee symphony for the Koss Classics label. Foss was also a superb pianist, a facility mostly known only to his students and friends as relatively little of it has appeared on recordings. However, he did perform the piano part in Leonard Bernstein's unrevised, first waxing of his Symphony No. 2 â€œThe Age of Anxietyâ€ in 1950 and as accompanist to Gregor Piatigorsky in his own Capriccio for cello and piano (1946); also the Elysian label has lately issued some discs of Foss' capable pianism. As his students will recall, Foss had a disarming and slightly naughty sense of humor and was calm, persuasive, and seemed to exude music from every pore. Foss' mere presence seemed to inspire intuitive music-making from the most unpromising students. No matter how posterity may come to regard his compositions, it is clear that the figure of Lukas Foss will cast a long shadow over American music.
Carlos Prieto, cello; Edison Quintana, piano - Foss: Capriccio for cello and piano (1948)
Scott Dunn, piano - Foss: Grotesque Dance (1938)
Andrew Clary; Boston Modern Orchestra Project - Foss: The Prairie (1944)
Carolann Page, soprano; Lukas Foss, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra - Foss: The Song of Songs (1946)
Lukas Foss; Foss Festival Players - Paradigm (1968)
Lukas Foss, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra - Copland: Variations on a Shaker Melody
Lukas Foss, piano; Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic - Bernstein: Symphony No. 2 "The Age of Anxiety"
Lukas Foss, piano; Chin Kim, violin; Quiang Tu, cello - Mozart: Piano Trio No. 3 in B flat, K. 502