Lukas Foss, Composer at Home in Many Stylistic Currents, Dies at 86

February 4, 2009 at 2:20 pm Leave a comment

By ALLAN KOZINN, The New York Times: February 1, 2009

Lukas Foss, a prolific and versatile composer who was also a respected pianist and conductor, died at his home in Manhattan on Sunday. He was 86, and also had a home in Bridgehampton, N.Y. His wife, Cornelia, announced his death.

Associated Press

Lukas Foss rehearsing with baton in 1944; Leonard Bernstein, who was then assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, is at the piano.

James Estrin/The New York Times

Mr. Foss at home in 1997.

Although he was a German émigré, Mr. Foss was, from the start of his composing career, considered an important voice in the burgeoning world of American composition, along with Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter and Leonard Bernstein. And like Bernstein, he enthusiastically championed the works of his colleagues. But where Bernstein, in his compositions, melded jazz and theater music with a lush symphonic neo-Romanticism — or wrote theater music outright — Mr. Foss preferred to explore the byways of the avant-garde, focusing at different times on techniques from serialism and electronic music to Minimalism and improvisation. But as he moved from style to style, his voice remained distinctive, partly because he distrusted rules and never fully adhered to those of the approaches he adopted, and partly because a current of mercurial wit ran through his work.

He took particular pleasure in finding common ground between opposing languages and techniques. His String Quartet No. 3 (1975), for example, is essentially a Minimalist work, but it has a mildly atonal edge and uses dynamics more dramatically than other Minimalist works of the time.

Sometimes Mr. Foss would combine contemporary styles with those of the distant musical past. His “Baroque Variations” (1967) is a partly improvisatory, partly mischievous deconstruction of works by Handel, Scarlatti and Bach. In his “Salomon Rossi Suite” (1975) and “Renaissance Concerto” for flute and orchestra (1985), fragments of 16th-century works are refracted entertainingly through a modernist lens.

The British musicologist Wilfred Mellers once described Mr. Foss’s body of work as “a pocket history of American music during the 20th century.” Mr. Foss was aware that his detractors regarded his style-hopping as the sign of a dabbler, and that the critics complained that he tended to follow stylistic trends rather than to originate them. He rejected those criticisms and took particular pride in the fact that even listeners who followed his music closely never knew what to expect of his latest works.

“I would agree that my curiosity has led me absolutely everywhere,” he told The New York Times in 1979. “But I make one qualification: I’ve never done anything at the O.K. time. In other words, I’ve never been a bandwagon jumper. I’ve never belonged to any school. I’ve never written a 12-tone piece when it was fashionable to do so.”

As a conductor, Mr. Foss held several important posts, or more precisely he took several minor podiums and transformed them into important ones. In the seven years he directed the Buffalo Philharmonic, from 1963 to 1970, he joined forces with composers on the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo to raise the city’s profile as a center of musical experimentation.

When he took over the Brooklyn Philharmonia in 1971 it was essentially a community orchestra that played a handful of concerts every season. Within five years, he had revamped the roster, polished its sound considerably, expanded its regular programming and added special series like Meet the Moderns, in which he presented an inclusive overview of contemporary composition. By the time he relinquished the podium, in 1990, he had turned the orchestra, renamed the Brooklyn Philharmonic, into one of New York City’s most vital ensembles.

Mr. Foss also directed the Jerusalem Symphony (1972-76) and the Milwaukee Symphony (1980-86).

“I conduct because I love to make love to the past,” he said in a 1975 interview with the New York Arts Journal. “I think man has this need, and the need to discover the future as well. The more my own composition is busy with exploration and experimentation, the greater is my need to keep my tie with the past which made me a musician in the first place; my tie with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and Wagner and Verdi and Handel and Schubert.”

Mr. Foss was born Lukas Fuchs in Berlin, the son of a lawyer and a painter. The date was probably Aug. 15, 1922, although in 1997, when he was honored with several concerts of his music on his 75th birthday, he said that he was not entirely sure when he was born. “The weird thing is that I’ll never know if it’s really my 75th birthday,” he told The Times, “because I have no birth certificate. I have a passport, but the birth date on it was the result of guesswork.”

When he was 7, Mr. Foss began studying piano and music theory with Julius Goldstein Herford. He started composing almost immediately, and sketched out an opera when he was 11. When the Nazis came to power, in 1933, the family fled to Paris, where Mr. Foss enrolled at the Conservatoire and studied piano with Lazare Lévy, flute with Louis Moyse, composition with Noël Gallon and orchestration with Felix Wolfes.

After his arrival in the United States, in 1937, he continued his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. The pianist Isabelle Vengerova, the conductor Fritz Reiner and the composers Rosario Scalero and Randall Thompson were his principal teachers. After his graduation in 1940, he pursued further studies in conducting with Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood and in composition with Paul Hindemith at Yale. He became an American citizen in 1942.

He received his first important commissions in the early 1940s, including incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” which he later arranged as a suite for orchestra. His 1944 cantata “The Prairie,” based on Carl Sandburg’s poem, showed that he had assimilated the pastoral American style that was Copland’s specialty at the time. Koussevitzky gave the work its premiere with the Boston Symphony, and in 1944 it won the New York Critic’s Circle Award. Koussevitzky then hired the young composer to be the pianist of the Boston Symphony, Mr. Foss remembered, “so I could have a job and compose.”

Mr. Foss’s music in this early period was tonal and eclectic, and he was already showing his ability to move easily between styles. Works like “The Song of Songs” (1946) were dramatic and emotional; his String Quartet No. 1 (1947) was more chromatic and abstract, and his first mature opera, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1949), based on Mark Twain’s story, was even folksier than “The Prairie.”

Several prominent conductors — Reiner, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy and Ernest Ansermet, among them — performed his works. Mr. Foss performed them, too: he conducted the premiere of his First Symphony in 1946, and was the soloist in his Second Piano Concerto in 1951. He also occasionally appeared as the soloist in a Bach or Mozart concerto on programs that also included his orchestral music.

A turning point in Mr. Foss’s career came in 1953, when he succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as the head of the composition department at the University of California at Los Angeles. As a way to try to lead his composition students away from what he called “the tyranny of the printed note,” he encouraged them to improvise. To set an example, he formed his own Improvisation Chamber Ensemble in 1957. In his own music, improvisatory sections mingled with fully scored passages.

A major work from this period was “Time Cycle” (1960), a four-movement vocal setting of texts by Auden, Housman, Kafka and Nietzsche, with either chamber or orchestral accompaniment. Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic gave the premiere and made the first recording of the work.

“Lenny was interested in my ensemble,” Mr. Foss explained in 1997, “and he was upset that I didn’t give him my ‘Improvisational Concerto,’ which Ormandy did with Philadelphia. He complained that ‘Time Cycle’ didn’t have any improvisations, and I said, ‘O.K., we’ll come and improvise between the songs.’ I was joking, but he took it seriously, so we did it, and we recorded it with the improvised interludes.”

Mr. Foss expanded his vocabulary further in the late 1960s. In “Concert for Cello,” composed for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1966, and in “Baroque Variations,” he toyed with the tension and interplay between Baroque and modern musical impulses. Currents of humor run through these: in the cello work, the live cellist and a recorded cello line gradually distort a Bach sarabande; in the Bach section of the “Baroque Variations,” a bottle is smashed with a hammer, and Johann Sebastian Bach is spelled out in Morse code by a xylophone.

In “Paradigm” (1968), Mr. Foss used an electric guitar (or optional sitar) as a nod to the world of psychedelic rock music. He never used rock techniques as such, but he used borrowed amplified timbres again in “Geod” (1969), which includes electric piano and organ, and in a later work, the elegiac “Night Music for John Lennon” (1981), which includes a plaintive electric guitar line.

Although synthesizers and tape interested him only peripherally, he mimicked electronic timbres in his 1972 wind quintet, “The Cave of Winds.” And he continued to mine the latest stylistic innovations. His “Three Airs for Frank O’Hara’s Angel,” composed in 1972, touches on moves that were then exclusive to the early Minimalists.

Mr. Foss’s 1978 setting of the Wallace Stevens poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and his quasi-Minimalist “Solo” for piano (1981) show lingering traces of his interest in the avant-garde.

After he left the Brooklyn Philharmonic, in 1990, Mr. Foss continued to appear as a guest conductor and pianist with orchestras. He also directed a chamber music festival on Long Island, the Music Festival of the Hamptons, in the late 1990s. Mr. Foss was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983, and was its vice chancellor in the late 1980s.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Christopher, and a daughter, Eliza Foss, both of Manhattan; and a brother, Oliver, who lives near Paris. He also had three granddaughters, Olivia, Sabina and Eugénie.

After the early 1980s, Mr. Foss’s music became increasingly listener-friendly. But he did not consider this more mellow style to be an abandonment of his earlier exploratory approach. “I’m not sure the works I’ve done since my so-called avant-garde period are less adventurous,” he told The Times in 1997. “The whole point now is that I can be just as crazy tonally as I was before atonally. Crazy in the sense of unexpected.”

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