Trinity Church Wall Street and Opus 3 Artists present Lukas Foss Centennial Celebration in Review

Steve Sherman

09 October 2022

To celebrate the centennial of the birth of Lukas Foss, a free concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) was presented at Carnegie Hall on October 3, 2022. Five of Foss’s works, plus one by Foss’s teacher Randall Thompson, were on the program, with The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Downtown Voices also participating. It was wonderful to see a packed hall even in spite of the bad weather, with a large number of BPO supporters festooned with BPO face masks and many young people.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra led by JoAnn Falletta was ideal for offering this tribute, given both Foss’s strong impact on both the BPO (as music director from 1963-1971) and Foss’s influence on Ms. Falletta as a mentor, friend, and colleague. Those in attendance were rewarded with the experience of hearing a world-class orchestra, led by a conductor who rates as one the all-time greats, playing the music of an authentic musical genius. Maybe this concert is a step in “righting the wrong” of this country’s relative neglect of Foss, who is every bit the national treasure that Copland and Bernstein are – a voice of optimism, idealism, and great expanses.

JoAnn Falletta bounded onto the Stern Auditorium stage with energy and purpose, what proved to be traits of her leadership this evening. One could sense there was something extra, that this was much more than just a concert to her. Opening with Ode (or the full title Ode to Those Who Will Not Return), this listener sensed from the first notes that this was going to be something out of the ordinary. Ode is inspired by John Donne, specifically the 17th Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which has been often rendered in poetic form as “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The “bells” toll in the low strings, and there is an uneasiness that hovers over, but never really disappears until the very end, where a serene C major quietly “makes peace,” which mirrors Donne well. This was an inspired choice to open, and I was much taken with this work.

Three American Pieces, in the 1986 version for violin and orchestra, followed the Ode. BPO concertmaster Nikki Chooi was the featured soloist. Make no mistake, this is unbridled joy from start to finish, brimming with Americana. One can hear what Foss calls a “prairie lullaby,” folk-like tunes, ragtime, blues, and some scintillating fiddling. Mr. Chooi played it to the hilt. He was obviously having a great time and is clearly a player of dazzling abilities. As much as I enjoyed the razzle-dazzle moments, the second movement Dedication was my favorite in its breathtaking beauty.

Renaissance Concerto for flute and orchestra, with flute soloist Amy Porter, was the final work on the first half. While many of the names of early music make “guest appearances,” (viz. Byrd, Rameau, Monteverdi, and Gesualdo), modern devices abound, such as extended techniques from the soloist. It is looking forward and backward simultaneously – vintage Foss. It is said that Foss “followed where his mind went,” which sometimes was forward and other times backward. Any number of “schools” could have claimed him, and they all would have strong cases. Incidentally, on this subject, I must mention the excellent program notes by Peter J. Rabinowitz, which were informative without being overly didactic or just a mishmash of “fun facts” for the lay listener.

To return to the performance, the Renaissance Concerto enjoyed a superb interpretation. Ms. Porter is a formidable player – she couples a pristine tone quality with technique to burn. The Jouissance finale was the showcase, with brilliant passagework, a courtly duet between the flute and tambourine, some tapping on keys, and aggressive blowing, culminating in Ms. Porter’s slow exit from the stage while still tapping keys and making a “click” sound as she got farther from the stage. The audience reacted enthusiastically, and it was a fine end to the half.

After intermission, Psalms for chorus and orchestra opened the second half. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Downtown Voices joined the BPO. Psalms is a single-movement, three-part work that uses verses from Psalms 121 and 95 in the first section, Psalm 100 in the second, and Psalm 23 in the third. It is built around the harp, piano, and percussion, what the program notes refer to as an imagined “Biblical” sound (though I have some mixed feelings about that designation). There are glances at Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, but let’s remind the reader in the latter case that Foss was first! The combined choirs were outstanding, with clear diction and articulation, coupled with ensemble balance and intonation that was exceptional. Special credit to Stephen Sands for his fine work in preparing the choirs.

Randall Thompson’s much-loved and much performed Alleluia was another opportunity for The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Downtown Voices to showcase their artistry. It was sublime.

Foss’s Symphony No. 1 was the final work on the program. This is the work of a young composer who is still trying to establish his voice. It’s brimming with ideas, and the orchestration is brilliant, but there is the unmistakable impression that while the composer has the gifts, he does not a clear idea of what to do with them or how to use them to maximum advantage. One hears Copland, some Stravinsky, and even Hindemith, to be sure, all good role models; these observations notwithstanding, it is still a remarkable work for a twenty-two-year-old composer. Ms. Falletta and the BPO gave it their all; the strings shimmered, and the brass and woodwinds were rich and robust. The audience reacted with a well-earned standing ovation in what was a fine ending to a memorable evening.