Buffalo Philharmonic celebrates the shape-shifting Lukas Foss

09 October 2022

One hundred years after his birth, Lukas Foss remains a moving target.

That was the takeaway from Monday’s concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta at Carnegie Hall, a “centennial celebration” consisting of works by the German-born American composer, conductor, and pianist who became famous at mid-century as the ultimate shape-shifter of “modern music.”

Neoclassicism, avant-garde improvisation, big-sky patriotism, chugging minimalism—these were not phases Foss went through one after the other, but permanent pots of color in his studio, ever ready to add a daub here, a splash there to his musical canvases.

Foss was a child prodigy in his native Berlin, and the “boy wonder” persona never quite left him during his long career in America (he died in 2009 at 86). The public came to think of him as a sort of bratty kid brother to his lifelong friend and Curtis classmate Leonard Bernstein.

He brought an entrepreneurial spirit to his music-director posts in Buffalo, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee, where his programming innovations included the much-imitated, single-composer “marathon concerts.”

In the spirit (if not the length) of those events, Falletta, who was associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Foss in the 1980s and has led the Buffalo ensemble since 1999, offered two hours of total Foss immersion Monday night, beginning rather somberly with a wartime composition, Ode.

Composed around the time of D-Day (and revised in 1958), Ode throbbed with a feeling of crisis in its uneasy march and violent outbursts, and closed on a note not of triumph but of quiet affirmation. Falletta and the orchestra were alert to the Fossian stylistic swerves, from jagged modernism to jazzy syncopation to patriotic fervor.

The program stayed in the 1940s with Three American Pieces, originally for violin and piano and orchestrated in 1986, which followed Foss’s first major success, the cantata The Prairie. The composer even described the first piece, “Early Song,” as a “prairie lullaby.” Soloist Nikki Chooi (the orchestra’s concertmaster) engaged orchestral wind players in gentle dialogue over swinging rhythms in the strings.

“Dedication” showcased Chooi’s sweet yet full tone as the violin soared over the light orchestration, then led an expressive climax of robust (not teary) nostalgia. “Composer’s Holiday” could hardly have been that, with so many swirls of notes to write down, but a joyful spirit imbued the scherzando violin and the woodwinds’ saucy syncopations.

Lukas Foss
A counterpoint to Americana in Foss’s music was the European tradition he was born into, which he constantly revisited and reinterpreted as composer and performer. Not all those reinterpretations were as sassy as the movement in Baroque Variations where he used a starter’s pistol to launch a fast Bach prelude, but on Monday his 1986 Renaissance Concerto offered solo flutist Amy Porter plenty of opportunities to evoke ancient times with new techniques.

“Intrada” stepped out with an incisive statement from the flute, then swung with a medieval-sounding dotted rhythm. Porter’s tone was impressively full-bodied from the bottom tones to the top. “Baroque Interlude (after Rameau)”—because nothing could be more Foss than to drop a Baroque item into your Renaissance concerto, just because you feel like it—put a dissonant spin on an actual Rameau gavotte, sounding tuneful and ornate in the mist of memory as Porter duetted charmingly with concertmaster Chooi.

The flutist’s fine breath control and legato sustained a tender lament in “Recitative (after Monteverdi),” while a quartet of orchestral players gently washed in a veil of expressively clashing harmonies. Percussion effects in the sprightly “Jouissance” included hard blowing and key taps in the flute, echoed by rattling col legno in the strings, and an elaborate duet for the flute and a tambourine. Near the close, the distant era seemed to recede as soloist Porter exited the stage, still tapping her keys.

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Downtown Voices—both creatures of Trinity Church’s robust music program—joined the Buffalo players for Psalms, in which Foss set Biblical texts with an ancient-sounding ensemble emphasizing harp, pianos and percussion. In a freestyle setting that alternately looked back to the dignity of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and forward to Bernstein’s jazzy Chichester Psalms, Foss crafted a dramatic invocation, a sacred dance to lively Scotch-snap rhythms, and a closing prayer.

Through it all the combined choirs, superbly prepared by Stephen Sands, were a marvel of well-supported tone, lucid diction, and (when called for) smart, détaché articulation. By way of a scheduled encore, Falletta then led the choir a cappella in an exquisite performance of the well-known Alleluia by Foss’s teacher Randall Thompson.

Closing the circle, the program returned to 1944 for the final work, Foss’s Symphony No. 1, in which the 22-year-old composer gave a deeply traditional title to music that blithely ignored sonata form and most of the other accoutrements of the genre. While nodding stylistically to Americana and to his fellow émigrés Hindemith and Stravinsky, Foss went his own way in the first movement, following his bold opening gesture with bars of vague pianissimo, constantly starting and stopping and chasing a new idea, in what seemed like the antithesis of symphonic architecture.

Here and in subsequent movements, Falletta and her players made sure one heard Foss’s precocious mastery of orchestration and atmosphere, the novel wind doublings, the rich string passages, the brassy big-band climaxes. Equally in the Adagio and the Scherzo, one sensed a man with a great set of tools who couldn’t quite decide what to build with them. Even the Allegro finale, despite vigorous and proficient playing by the able Buffalonians, never quite got airborne, perhaps due to its overscoring. It felt ironic that a man who pursued his life and work with such brio had such difficulty making “con brio” happen on the page.

But in the end, one felt nothing but gratitude to Falletta and her orchestra for two hours of quality time with this singular figure, the witty and tireless purveyor of the musical sounds of his era.

David Wright, New York Classical Review