Sunday, February 1, 2009

Lukas Foss, 1922-2009: "My curiosity has led me absolutely everywhere"

Lukas Foss, a composer who was also a respected pianist and conductor, died at the age of 86 on Sunday. I interviewed Mr. Foss in the early 1970s while I was attending Syracuse University. When he noticed that I had cerebral palsy he encouraged me to play piano for exercise, and performed a short piece for me demonstrating the right-hand movements. Here are excerpts from his obituary in The New York Times, by Alec Koznin.

... He took particular pleasure in finding common ground between opposing languages and techniques. ... 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 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.

... 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.”...

After his arrival in the United States, in 1937, he continued his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. 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.” ...

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.

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 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.”

1 comment:

Rini said...

Just as Lukas Foss had his curiosity led him everywhere, our understanding of any music is only as deep as our passion for understanding.