This commemoration, from one of Foss’ students:

539w

When Foss called something “naughty,” it was a compliment.

He regularly quoted Stravinsky: “I know exactly what I want to do, and then I do something else.” He revered Mozart for his ability to “put things together that don’t belong together” and make it sound sublime. He liked to say that composition was the search for “the right wrong notes.” What Foss really wanted was to make the unexpected seem inevitable.

Emigrating from Nazi Germany, Foss embraced the American habit of reinvention. Irresistibly drawn to possibility, he took his journey through life like a vacation, trying as many new things as he could. Populism, serialism, minimalism. Foss could adopt any musical vocabulary. But each was subsumed into his own personality, which, at its core, contained a deep love of the classical canon.

One of his greatest and craziest works, the “Phorion” movement from 1967’s “Baroque Variations,” violently deconstructs a Bach violin work. But, breaking it down for students, Foss’s own delight in its exuberant invention showed it to be as much a fulsome love letter from one composer to another.

He eagerly connected even the most radical break to the legacy handed down by past masters. As a teacher, he didn’t care what style you wrote in, he just tried to make sure that you did it well; no idea, however outlandish, was inimical to conscientious craft.

Foss was a fount of anecdotes that showed a lifelong knack for his being in the right place at the right time. During the early seasons of the Berkshire (later Tanglewood) Music Center, he shone among a firmament that included Copland and Bernstein; Serge Koussevitzky made Foss the pianist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a partial sinecure to encourage his composing.

Retracing the American experience, Foss then went West, taking over Arnold Schoenberg’s teaching position at UCLA, conducting marathon concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, mingling with stars and patrons. (He once revealed that Katharine Hepburn had seen him in his underwear: He rented her guest house for a time, and Hepburn was not prone to knock.) At the same time, he mistrusted the charm he displayed so effectively, once remarking that the greatest artists “walk on stage the same way they walk to the bathroom: in a hurry, nothing charismatic.” His 1959 one-act opera “Introductions and Goodbyes” sardonically distills a social gathering into nine minutes of greetings and names.

Foss the conductor could be notoriously chaotic, but his joy and energy usually carried the day, restoring the standard repertoire’s original unpredictability and immediacy, making it live again. One of his favorite stories concerned a performance of Brahms’s “Ein Deutsches Requiem,” for which he made some changes in the orchestration. Back at his hotel, as he told it, he found a note taking him to task for his temerity. When he asked who had left the note, the clerk replied, “A short German with a beard.”

Once, with a student orchestra, I watched him lead the opening of Brahms’s First Symphony by standing rock-still, letting the timpani pound out the beat, willing the rest of the orchestra to tap into its thrashing energy – half expressionism, half heavy metal. If he composed to bring the brash and the new into the fold of tradition, he conducted to make the tradition sound brash and new.

By the time I studied with him, tales of his absent-mindedness were legion. (BU students dubbed him “Focus Lost.”) But his musical recall remained exact. If I was unprepared for a lesson, I’d pull out a year-old sketch and try to pass it off as new, which would unfailingly be greeted with his bright rasp: “I’ve seen this.” Names and faces might come and go, but notes and rhythms were fixed points. It was as though, as his curiosity led him on, he deliberately forgot nonmusical things in order to pack more music into his brain.

Lukas Foss died last Sunday. He was 86 years old and had been suffering for some time from Parkinson’s disease. And yet his passing nonetheless managed to be something of a surprise; even knowing his increasing infirmities, the idea that his restless spirit would ever be stilled remained at least nominally incredible.

Having lived an irrepressible life, at its end, Foss flipped his musical ideal around: He made the inevitable seem unexpected. It was very naughty of him.

Matthew Guerrieri
The Boston Globe

Advertisements