Today would have been Lukas Foss’s ninetieth birthday, and I’m remembering him fondly. Linked here is a piece I wrote for NewMusicBox, commemorating him after his passing in 2009. Thanks to Frank J. Oteri for digging it out of their online archives.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Lukas Foss
1) Lukas Foss was not one for pigeonholes. An accomplished pianist, conductor, and composer, his path charted an ambitious geography, including Europe, Israel, and numerous locations in the US: New York, California, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Bridgehampton. His early career included studies with Hindemith at Yale and a wunderkind era of appearances throughout the country as a piano soloist and up-and-coming composer.
2) Lukas was a college professor for much of his career, at UCLA, SUNY Buffalo, Carnegie-Mellon, and Boston University. I studied with him at BU during 1995-6. 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, he met with students for private sessions. 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! Lukas frequently played Beethoven excerpts too; talking with great enthusiasm about technical details, as well as the great composer’s sense of drama and humor.
3) 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.
4) Some composition teachers will encourage their students to extensively edit and rework their music: 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.
5) It was fascinating to watch Lukas in action at a week-long celebration of his music given at Avery Fisher Hall by the New York Philharmonic in 1995, conducted by Kurt Masur. Lukas took copious notes throughout the rehearsals, 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 was Lukas leading the BU student orchestra. He brought out more spirit, musicality, and yes, details, than one ever would have thought possible with an amateur group, making an old warhorse seem fresh and vital again.
7) Perhaps Lukas’s greatest contributions as a conductor were in somewhat modest settings. He helped a number of emerging professional orchestras develop into fine ensembles. While this was certainly true of his time in Buffalo and Milwaukee, he’s probably best known for transforming the Brooklyn Philharmonic into a top-notch group capable of assaying challenging repertoire, incorporating a great deal of contemporary music into their programs.
8) Works: Symphony #4, String Quartet #5, Tashi, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Time Cycle, Renaissance Concerto: choosing favorites among Lukas’s pieces is not easy. Many have commented on the difficulty of evaluating his catalog in any kind of systematic way; its creator was such a compositional polyglot; an enthusiastic composer in many, many styles. That in itself serves as a kind of composition lesson. Too often, today’s composers are defined by their stylistic profile, their relative merit weighed against the trends of the day. Lukas was more than happy to try out different styles – Americana, neoclassicism, aleatory, avant-garde, minimalism – but not due to the whims of fashion. Rather, he was spurred by a genuine curiosity, eager to explore music in many forms and create pieces that reveled in the inspiration of the moment, rather than worrying about how a particular piece “fit” in his catalog or bolstered his profile.
9) Echoi: Improvisation played an important role in Lukas’s activities and output from the 1950s and 60s. It was another facet of his inquisitive nature; another musical problem to be assayed; and a joyfully simultaneous expression of his enthusiasms for performance and composition. The quality of the works from this period varies, as does the degree to which improvisation is successfully integrated. At its best, in the piece Echoi, there is a spontaneity and organic character to the wedding of improv and composed music which provides a beautiful result. Lukas’s engagement with the practice was a bold maneuver, and a fruitful one. It helped to free his music from its somewhat conservative previous bent and ever imbued it afterwards with a sense of surprise. One never knew quite what each successive work by Lukas might have in store; but one always knew that it would be interesting. Indeed, groups like Alarm Will Sound, Icebreaker, and Bang on a Can owe a debt to Lukas. His forays into free improvisation in a concert music context mark Lukas as a kindred spirit and worthy predecessor for the current, fertile Downtown scene.
10) At BU, Lukas would frequently pass by the students at work in the lounge area of the music building, poring over scores or correcting parts. He’d peer over the composers’ shoulders, playfully make faux sweeping comments:”Too diatonic! Put in more dynamics! Where’s this phrase going?” On the way back from the beverage machine, Lukas would often pass along an extra cup of cocoa or coffee.
11) The last time I saw Lukas was in 2004. The Music Festival of the Hamptons had programmed Mourning Madrid, my piece for live locomotive and orchestra. Lukas was a fixture of the festival: advising on the programming, conducting, and appearing as a piano soloist.
12) Bach: another touchstone for Lukas. The concert in the Hamptons also included a performance of Brandenburg Five with Lukas as soloist. Even as an octogenarian, his Bach was thrilling to hear. Lukas’s Bach would not have wooed some early music buffs: his use of ornamentation was restrained and he played the piano like a big concert grand, with no intimations of the harpsichord. Of ornamentation in Baroque music, Lukas said, “One can use plenty of ornaments in some of the lesser Baroque composers; but I don’t think that Bach requires too much more than what he wrote!” Hearing Lukas play the Brandenburg was like watching an affectionate conversation between old friends; Bach informed his compositional and performance decisions throughout his career.
13) In a conversation after the Hamptons concert, I thanked Lukas for his generosity at our first meeting, when he’d listened to a tape of an early piece of mine for string quartet. Even though there were glaring shortcomings in the music, he cared enough about the fragile confidence of a fledgling composer to give words of encouragement that would inspire me to go on. As he would so often in the future, Lukas had told me to “keep writing.”
In parting, he said with a smile, “Remember what I told you? I was right.”
Lukas Foss: 1922-2009.