Remembrance of a Genius (Lukas Foss 1922-2009)

By Fredrick Kaufman

 On Sunday, February 1, the American music community lost one of its greatest advocates—composer, conductor, pianist and educator, Lukas Foss.

Lukas was an eclecticist in the truest sense of the word. Within his catalogue of over 150 compositions, he covered the gambit of sounds from Neo-classic, to avant-garde, to Minimalism, to electronic, to improvisation and serialism. Within those styles, he wrote numerous chamber works, operas, solo compositions, symphonies, choral and mixed media works, many of which have become classics.

 No work shows Lukas’ love of the written word better then his much acclaimed, four-movement vocal, chamber/orchestral composition, Time Cycle, written in 1960 on the texts of Auden, Housman, Kafka and Nietzsche. His 1978 setting of the poem, 13 Ways of Looking at a Mockingbird by Wallace Stevens is considered by many to be one of his finest achievements.

 Lukas was completely comfortable mixing contemporary styles with music of the masters of other periods, as he did with the compositions of Baroque composers Handel, Scarlatti and Bach in his partially improvisatory landmark Baroque Variations in 1967.

 Foss made his mark as director with numerous orchestras such as the Buffalo Philharmonic (1963-1970), the Brooklyn Philharmonic (1971-1990), the Jerusalem Symphony (1972-1976) and the Milwaukee Symphony (1980-1986). With each of these ensembles, he created special events that often paid tribute to American composers: “Meet The Moderns,” “Carpet Concerts” and 24-to-48 hour “Music Marathons”—all ideas that were later picked up by orchestras around the world. In the late 1990s, Foss became the director of a chamber music festival founded by Eleanor Leonard, the Music Festival of the Hamptons, a post he held until his recent demise. Along with giants such as Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss became one of America’s strongest advocates of new music.

 To the wrath of some and the joy of others, he toyed with tempos and made changes within works, which became a Foss trademark. It was in that vein that I first met Lukas. In 1973 my family and I were living in Israel at the same time as he was conducting the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. I didn’t even know he was conducting one of my works until the phone rang and it was Lukas asking me how I would feel about his picking up the tempo by 20 degrees at the beginning of the third movement (of my Second Symphony). I can’t remember what I said, but I do remember that, of course, he was right. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted 35 years. He championed my music on three continents and two years ago nominated my Urban Quartet for a Pulitzer Prize.

 I brought him to Philadelphia to lecture and present his music while I was dean of the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts and he came to Florida International University twice. Each visit was an experience that anyone who was there will never forget.

 Lukas was one of a kind and anyone who knew him was much richer for the experience. He was a charming, brilliant man with a marvelous sense of humor, open to new ideas and possessing a sense of curiosity  that led him to experiment with sound adventures all of his life.

 Lukas Foss is survived by his artist wife,  Cornelia, a son, Christopher, a daughter, Eliza, three granddaughters and his brother Oliver, who lives in France.

 Fredrick Kaufman is a noted composer of over 130 compositions. He is the former Director of the School of Music at Florida International University where he currently holds the title of Professor Emeritus.

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Wed Feb 4, 2009
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