Composer, Conductor Lukas Foss Dies At 86
Composer, conductor and pianist Lukas Foss, who died Feb. 1 after suffering a heart attack in his New York City apartment, was widely admired for his adventurous spirit and keen wit. Those traits put him on a productive but musically unpredictable path during a career that spanned seven decades, numerous awards and 11 honorary doctorates. He was 86.
In 1939, Foss went to study at Yale with composer Paul Hindemith — and nearly got thrown out. Hindemith told the precocious 17-year-old, "I can't teach anyone who wants to know everything, but who doesn't want to follow anything."
When he was a young composer in the 1940s, Foss' work was neo-classical, full of lyricism and an appreciation for Stravinsky and Bach.
By the mid-'50s, Foss said he was envious of jazz and its apparent freedoms. So he tried a kind of controlled improvisation — what would later be called aleatoric or chance music.
The experimentation opened the door to the avant-garde and serial composition in the 1960s.
These styles and others he tried may appear to have nothing in common, but they were born of the same restless creativity and built on the same foundation as his conducting, as Foss told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1987.
"I never left home," Foss said. "In other words, since home was Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, since that was my home, I never left it. I was always close to that music. As a matter of fact, in my most avant-garde days, I needed it, I needed that. See the best thing is to have one big foot in the past and one in the future."
Home Is Where The Music Is
Home was originally Berlin, where he was born Lukas Fuchs in 1922. He was a prodigy who began playing harmonium as a toddler and began composing at the age of 7. His parents left a Germany that was falling under the sway of the Nazis, and eventually wound up in Philadelphia. Foss became a student at the Curtis Institute of Music at the age of 15. He was already publishing his compositions and made his conducting debut two years later with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Five years later, he was recognized by the New York Music Critics' Circle for his cantata, The Prairie. When he was 23, Foss became the youngest composer ever to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship.
After teaching at UCLA, Foss moved on to become the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1963. JoAnn Falletta, the orchestra's current music director, worked as Foss' associate conductor at the Milwaukee Symphony.
"He brought with him this appetite for new music and for seeing music in the world in a different way," Falletta says. "He completely changed the Buffalo Philharmonic. He put us right at the center of the new music world, to the shock of the audience probably, to the confusion of the orchestra at times. But he never gave up. And that legacy is still here. He left his imprint on the arts here, and that's never diminished."
Foss created a similar stir in 1971, when he took over the Brooklyn Philharmonia, little more than a community orchestra back then. In his first season, he introduced marathon concerts — then highly unusual — including one of modern composers. Audiences and sponsors fled, but again Foss didn't give up. The renamed Brooklyn Philharmonic won them back in part with a series devoted to contemporary music.
"I don't believe it's my business to shock an audience," Foss said. "I like to surprise them, which means opening a door for them."
Lukas Foss gradually lightened his conducting duties to make more time for composing in the 1980s. But for the last year and a half, his struggle with parkinson's disease made it too difficult to continue.
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