Lukas Foss: 1922-2009
Eight Ways of Looking at Lukas
1) I first met Lukas at Carnegie Mellon University in 1992. No longer a regular member of the faculty, he was back for the day to give a masterclass. The Cuarteto Latinamericano had just read a bunch of pieces by CMU composers. Even though mine wasn’t slated to be on the Foss masterclass, it got cued up on the tape of the readings by accident. When he heard the beginning, Lukas asked that it be kept on for a minute before we turned to the next score. “Sounds like a composer,” he said. “Keep writing!”
When it came time to apply for grad school, I sought him out as a teacher.
2) I studied with Lukas from 1995-6 when I was at Boston University. People have often made jokes about Lukas’s absentmindedness; but during our first lesson at BU, he recalled our previous meeting and mentioned the piece of mine that was played. When I brought the string quartet score to a subsequent lesson to show him, he compared it side by side with my current work and said, “See, you’ve come a long way. But there’s more work to be done!” Lots more.
3) Lukas packed all of his teaching into one day a week, flying up from New York to work with composition students and, sometimes, to conduct the university orchestra. Every other week, we met for private lessons. Lukas was a phenomenal pianist. One of my favorite things about the lessons was hearing him blaze through my drafts, perfectly sight-reading them up-to-tempo; sometimes faster!
On alternate weeks, Lukas and his assistant, Apostolos Paraskevas, would arrange for readings of student pieces, usually of solo works. During the course of the year, students in Foss’s studio would be required to write a new piece every two weeks. We’d meet as a group to hear each others’ compositions read. Foss would discuss each instrument’s capabilities and comment on our efforts. It was some of the best instruction I’ve had in orchestration.
What’s more, I made became close friends with two fellow Foss students that year: Ken Ueno and Bob Thomas. To this day, they’re the eyes and ears I trust when my pieces reach the “reading” stage, but aren’t necessarily ready for public consumption.
4) In later lessons, at Rutgers with Charles Wuorinen, I was frequently advised to make corrections and bring an edited draft to the next lesson. Lukas took a different approach. He tended to comment on what he felt worked and didn’t work in a piece. Then, he would encourage you to apply those principals to the next thing you composed. “Keep writing!” he’d say.
Charles was certainly the most detailed teacher I’ve ever had, encouraging me to refine my work and question my previous assumptions about style and language. Conversely, I think of Lukas as my “guru;” always insisting that I never get stuck; that I use my imagination; that I keep going. I consider myself lucky to have studied with both of them.
5) Another life-lesson was watching Lukas in action at a week-long celebration of his music given at Avery Fisher Hall by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Kurt Masur. I asked if I could come to the rehearsals and he invited me to sit with him and turn pages. Lukas took copious notes throughout, but was gracious to both the conductor and musicians, choosing his battles wisely and his criticisms carefully.
6) About Lukas as a conductor: his technique was never the prettiest, but he knew how to get results. One of the best performances I’ve ever heard of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – bar none, I kid you not – was Lukas leading the BU student orchestra. You may think I’m crazy, but it was electrifying. He brought out more spirit, musicality, and yes, details, than I ever would have thought possible with an amateur group, making an old warhorse seem fresh and vital again.
7) After I studied with Lukas, I spent another year at BU studying with a different teacher (students were encouraged to take from Lukas for only a single year, thereby allowing more of the composers to work with him). Lukas would frequently pass by me while I was at work in the lounge area of the music building, poring over a score or correcting parts. He’d look over my shoulder and playfully make faux sweeping comments:”Too diatonic! Put in more dynamics! Where’s this phrase going?” On the way back from the coffee machine, he’d often pass along an extra cup of cocoa or coffee.
8) The last time I saw Lukas was in 2004. He had programmed Mourning Madrid, my piece for locomotive and orchestra, at the Music Festival of the Hamptons. After the concert, he was once again kind and supportive.
Realizing that I might not get another chance to talk with Lukas, I reminded him of our first meeting, when he listened to the tape of the string quartet, and told him how much that experience had meant to me. Even though he’d heard glaring shortcomings in the music, he’d seen enough in it, or perhaps cared enough about the fragile confidence of a fledgling composer, to give me words of encouragement that would inspire me to go on.
In parting, he said with a smile, “Remember what I told you? I was right.”