“You can’t pin him down, and that’s the difficulty,” the conductor JoAnn Falletta said in a recent interview.
Falletta, the longtime music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, was speaking about Lukas Foss, who led that ensemble in the 1960s and would have turned 100 this year. She and the orchestra are celebrating the occasion on Monday with a concert devoted to his works at Carnegie Hall.
The polymathic Foss was a skilled and wide-ranging conductor, but he thought of himself primarily as a composer. His music grazed freely among Copland-esque Americana, thorny serial, wild chance-based, angular Neo-Classical, arch Neo-Baroque and churning Minimalist styles. That eclecticism, however, has worked against his lasting popularity, Falletta believes.
“He was very proud that he did everything,” she said. “He thought the more techniques you used, the richer your vocabulary was as a composer.”
Born Lukas Fuchs to a Jewish family in Berlin in 1922, he was gifted musically from an early age. With the rise of the Nazis, the Fuchses fled to Paris, then to Pennsylvania, where they changed their name to Foss and where Lukas studied piano, composition and conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
“The Prairie,” an oratorio-style choral work to a long poem by Carl Sandburg, made his name as a composer when it premiered in 1944. An unabashed love letter to his adopted country, it was the start of a richly productive writing career — complemented by podium positions in Buffalo, Milwaukee and elsewhere, where Foss, who died in 2009 at 86, sought to ensure contemporary music held a position as valued as the old standards.
Though Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project have made valuable recordings in recent years, Foss’s compositions — varied, yet with a singular voice and a pervasive curiosity — are played all too rarely these days.
“There’s a kind of sadness that he doesn’t have many champions now,” Falletta said, adding that she hoped the Carnegie concert might in some small way help with that. “If this gives a chance to see about him and look into other things, that’s great.”
In the interview, she discussed some key Foss works, including several she will be leading on Monday.
‘Three American Pieces’ (1944)
“This was originally a violin-piano duo,” Falletta said of a work that Foss orchestrated it in 1986, toward the end of his writing career.
“When he first wrote it,” she added, “it was part of that love affair with his new country. It’s so interesting: It has this open-air quality, a little bit of that Ives or Copland language. But like Copland, it wasn’t really his language, because he was an immigrant. How wonderfully strange it is that it’s immigrants that gave us our country’s sound. Foss had no direct connection to the frontier. But there’s a mixture of folk sounds in there, blues, ragtime. I think it’s so delightful — that Americana style, the affection he had.”
Symphony No. 1 (1944)
“I think here he’s not only reflecting his gratitude to the United States,” Falletta said, “but you also see a kind of rhythmic vitality that’s much more like Stravinsky, and a counterpoint he must have honed with Hindemith. The tradition of the symphony is there, but the second movement is blues — in a classical symphony! And the third movement is jazz, but it’s a Scherzo, with a trio and everything. There’s structural tightness, but it’s always unpredictable. I don’t think he was one to break convention, but he really loved to bend it.”
In the late 1940s, Foss wrote a lively opera based on the Mark Twain story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” It showed a gift for the kind of dramatic writing that would appeal to children, so he was a natural choice for NBC to approach in the wake of the success of the first opera it had commissioned for television, Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” (1951).
Foss’s delightful result, inspired by a fairy tale about a disobedient young devil, was broadcast on Nov. 6, 1955. It was, Falletta said, “the last part of an age when classical music was for everyone.”
“When you hear this,” Falletta said, “remember that the ‘Chichester Psalms’ of Leonard Bernstein — Lukas’s great friend from their Curtis days — had not yet been written.”
In the 1940s Foss had already done two cantatas for voice and orchestra, “Song of Anguish” and “Song of Songs,” that were also on biblical texts. “The most dramatic part is the middle part,” she said. “It’s very rhythmic, it’s very jazzy — very Bernstein in its own way, very vivid. The outer movements are shorter and slower.”
Foss’s best-known piece, this work for soprano and orchestra, dates to the period in which he began to experiment with alternatives to purely notated music; in 1957, he even founded the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he taught. In “Time Cycle,” which the Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic premiered, four song movements (with jumpy vocal lines and texts about time and its ambiguities by Auden, Housman, Kafka and Nietzsche) alternate with improvised instrumental interludes.
In works for small groups, Foss was able to delve deeper into avant-garde experimentation than he generally could in writing for larger ensembles. “Echoi,” for clarinet, cello, percussion and piano, draws on the kind of chance strategies that John Cage had made increasingly famous through the 1950s. Foss’s is a raucous piece in four sections, partly structured and partly open to swerves determined by the performers.
String Quartet No. 3 (1975)
“He went his own way,” Falletta said of Foss. That’s true, and he was no follower of trends, but he kept his ears open to new styles and he certainly heard the groundbreaking pieces that the young Steve Reich and Philip Glass were producing starting in the late 1960s. This quartet, its textures shifting throughout, is permeated with the intense, driving regularity of classic Minimalism, but married to the kind of spiky, even gritty dissonance that didn’t really interest Reich and Glass. (“Music for Six,” from a couple of years later, also explores Glassian repetition, sometimes in a gentler, more meditative mode.)
‘Renaissance Concerto’ (1985)
“When I was Lukas’s assistant at the Milwaukee Symphony, my first assignment was to go to Europe on tour with the orchestra,” Falletta said. “And he was always behind on writing deadlines, so he was working on this piece. He knew I played lute, so he asked me to bring him some music, and I brought him Noah Greenberg’s anthology of lute songs.”
The flute was especially close to him; with the piano, it was the instrument he played best. “The third movement,” Falletta said, “is drawn from Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo,’ with Orfeo lamenting the loss of Euridice: ‘Goodbye sun, goodbye sky, goodbye Earth.’ And then he tries to bring her back to life, and she’s following him before he turns around. And Lukas has a little offstage group of strings and the flute, following the orchestra a couple of beats behind, like a couple of steps behind. And then it disappears.”