Classically Speaking / New music and the legacy of Lukas Foss

Lukas Foss

Photos courtesy of the University at Buffalo music library


There was plenty of excitement going on in Buffalo’s classical music scene in 1967, the year Spree was founded. That avant garde excitement is recalled in Buffalo yearly, with June in Buffalo, a University at Buffalo-sponsored new music festival founded by fellow visionary Morton Feldman. In 1967, brilliant modernist composer, conductor, and virtuoso pianist Lukas Foss was music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the fifth in a line of distinguished conductors since the orchestra began performing in 1935. Under Foss, the BPO made its first Carnegie Hall appearance on May 1, 1967, in a program of Bach, Webern, and Ravel, with Charles Rosen performing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. In the New York Times review the next morning, we learn that Foss arrived at Carnegie after attending an earlier concert at Philharmonic Hall in which Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Foss’s new work, “Phorion.” 


Foss’s “Phorion” is a part of his  Baroque Variations, which includes “On a Handel Larghetto,” “On a Scarlatti Sonata,” and “On a Bach Prelude—Phorion.” Written in 1967, this dreamlike deconstruction of three classical composers debuted in a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra two months after the Carnegie Hall concert. It was recorded by the BPO on the Nonesuch label later that year, along with Concerto for Prepared Piano by John Cage. According to Foss’s program notes for the Carnegie concert, phorion is a Greek word meaning stolen goods. In the notes for a performance of Baroque Variations by the American Symphony Orchestra in 2015, composer Richard Wilson described “Phorion” thus: “J. S. Bach provides material for the final movement of this phantasmagoria. His E-major solo violin Partita is subjected to a series of interruptions, often comic, that suggest zoo animals on the loose, right-hand-only piano practice, stuck vinyl records, chaos suddenly broken off then turned back on. Finally: an organ appearing out of nowhere battling out-of-control percussion.”


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Foss conducted the BPO on several other recordings, featuring the compositions of Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Iannis Xenakis, Krzystof Penderecki, Jean Sibelius, the electronic music of Morton Subotnick, and his own eclectic and haunting orchestral and vocal composition, Geod. Foss, who died in 2009, was also a driving force behind the establishment of Buffalo as a center for the celebration of new music in America. In 1964, he was a cofounder of the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts and secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to provide fellowships to promising young composers and performers. During his tenure at the BPO, Buffalo hosted the First Festival of the Arts in 1965 and a sequel in 1968, both of which featured the glittering stars of the avant-garde in music, art, dance, and writing and brought thousands of spectators and rave reviews from the national press. 


Also in 1967, the fabled Guarneri Quartet made its first appearance on February 14 in the Buffalo Chamber Music Society series performing works by Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Debussy. The Guarneri later commissioned Foss to write his String Quartet No. 5, which he composed in 2000. Today, the Lukas Foss era is generally regarded as a golden age of modernism in Buffalo, a time when the BPO played more new music than all the other orchestras in the country combined. Yet, even orchestra members at the time were amazed that after 15 years of being led by old-world maestros William Steinberg and Josef Krips, the BPO plunged into the heart of the avant-garde with the hiring of Foss. 



“Lukas Foss had such a brilliant reputation in the late fifties and early sixties. He had guest conducted here a couple of times and was well known in Boston as a maestro,” recalls former BPO clarinetist Edward Yadzinski. “He was the only guy on the planet who could have succeeded the great Arnold Schoenberg as professor of composition at UCLA. There was just one choice the committee had, and that was Lukas Foss. I think ninety-eight percent of the Buffalo musicians who played under him would tell you they never worked with a more informed musician than Lukas Foss.” 


At a reception following a concert during those years, a celebrated philanthropist and major donor to the orchestra asked an orchestra member what the musicians thought of Foss and all his “crazy programming.” The musician replied that while everyone recognized he was very adventurous, they also realized that he has a complete gift for music and was a maestro of the highest level. “I thought so,” said the patron, “Lukas is the only genius I ever met.”


Although the majority of orchestra musicians seem to have loved Foss, the opinion wasn’t unanimous. Former BPO assistant conductor, orchestra musician, and classical radio announcer John Landis has a different take on the great man.


“I will tip the hat to Lukas in one case: he was a fabulous pianist. Whenever he played the piano—and he often performed Bernstein’s 2nd Symphony, The Age of Anxiety, which he recorded twice with Bernstein—his piano playing was superb. But his conducting was absolutely awful. He couldn’t get through any standard repertoire piece without the orchestra just bailing him out. He didn’t like the standard repertoire. He only did it because he was pressured, and he drove the audience away. It was a crazy idea to do all this new music—UB was the place to do it. But to have a symphony orchestra with subscription concerts and pops programs with music that people want to hear and will pay money for, he wasn’t the guy.”


Yet another musician who played under Foss has the opposite view. “Lukas was immensely informed in the standard repertoire,” he insists. “That’s why he became the maestro of the Buffalo Philharmonic and also conducted the New York Philharmonic. He was also music director of the Jerusalem Symphony, which is as conservative an orchestra as you can possibly have, as well as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony. And when he was not renewed, the chairman of the musicians’ committee of the Milwaukee Symphony told the press, ‘We regret that Lukas will not be renewed but we can tell you that the man has never been in a concert in his life where he was not the greatest musician in the house.’”


Cellist Monte Hoffman, whom Foss hired in 1964, echoes this view of the late maestro. “He would put on concerts of all modern music. And after each piece, people would leave. Because that’s what he believed in. But, he also conducted everything else. He was the genius of the whole group of conductors I played under. What he did musically was important for history.”


“It’s true that sometimes people got mad, and didn’t like a piece and walked out of a concert,” adds Yadzinski. “People have been doing that for hundreds of years. Yet, no one did more to ensure the future of the orchestra than Lukas. Michael Tilson Thomas was very happy to become the maestro of the BPO because of Lukas Foss. And Julius Rudel, a terrific musician, did a marvelous job. But we couldn’t have got either of those guys if it weren’t for the legacy that was left by Lukas.” 


In the visionary spirit of Lukas Foss and Morton Feldman, June in Buffalo, the annual celebration of new music founded by Feldman will be held at the UB North Campus from June 5 through 11. Under the leadership of composer, distinguished professor, and artistic director David Felder, June in Buffalo will present the works of Eivind Buene, Henrik Hellstenius, and other Norwegian composers. The compositions of Brian Ferneyhough, Jeffrey Mumford, David Dzubay, Roger Reynolds, and David Felder will also be performed throughout the week. The following ensembles are scheduled at this writing: 


Monday, June 5, the Cikada Trio

Wednesday, June 7, the Mivos Quartet

Thursday June 8, Irvine Arditti performs works for solo violin

Friday June 9, Dal Niente

​Saturday June 10, Ensemble Signal with Brad Lubman conducting and Irvine Arditti appearing as a soloist for Brian Ferneyhough’s Terrain, a composition for solo violin and wind septet with double bass. 

Sunday June 11, The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stefan Sanders. 


All concerts will be held at the Lippes Concert Hall except for the Thursday concert, which will be at Baird Recital Hall. These concerts commence at 7:30 p.m. except for the Sunday performance with the BPO, which begins at 2:30 p.m. For a current schedule of all events, click here


Earlier in the month, on June 3 and 4, JoAnn Falletta conducts the BPO and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus in an all-English program featuring a performance of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, starring baritone soloist Kevin Deas. Commissioned by the BBC as a small choral work in 1929, the piece premiered at the Leeds Festival as a full-blown oratorio in 1931. Belshazzar was, in fact, a ruler of Babylon in the sixth century BC (and probably a grandson of Nebuchadnezzar), and it was at his feast that the prophet Daniel saw the handwriting on the wall that foretold the destruction of the city. According to British choir director and author John Bawden, “What gives Belshazzar’s Feast such an overwhelming impact is its earthy portrayal of pagan revels, violent retribution, and triumphant jubilation, realised with astonishing vividness through the colorful choral and orchestral writing, edgy rhythms, and sparkling harmony.”             


Philip Nyhuis is a musician and longtime contributor to Spree.


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