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Lukas Foss

February 2, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


I was sorry to read today that the composer-conductor-pianist Lukas Foss died yesterday. I never saw him conduct, and I heard very little of his music, but I have the fondest memories of him. He spent the 1970-1971 academic year as a visiting faculty member at Harvard, and by happy coincidence that’s the year I took the year-long survey course Music 1. David Hughes was the instructor, but Hughes would bring in guest lecturers on occasion, and Lukas Foss was a regular guest. His appearances were the highlight of the course. Well, that’s not quite true. The highlight of the course was the music. Every day brought new discoveries for me, immersed as I was at the time in rock music and ignorant as I was of classical. I would sit in the language lab in the basement of Boylston Hall and listen to tape after tape. But the highlight of my time in the Paine Hall lecture room was Lukas Foss, with his warm personality, sense of humor, impromptu playing of pieces at the piano, and delightful accent.

Reading the obituary, I see that his year at Harvard was the year between his service (1963-1970) as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and his becoming principal conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra (1971–90). The following two paragraphs from the NYT obituary give some idea of his significance:

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.

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.

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