A long-ago planned concert featuring the music of composer/conductor/creator Lukas Foss had to suddenly rethink itself with the death on February 1 of one of Buffalo’s most influential artists. From the moment Foss began his tenure (1973-71) as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (prophetically programming Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question and the regional première of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring) both players and patrons would be challenged like never before. Some soon showed their reluctance to move beyond Mozart and Beethoven by walking out to, apparently, safer repertoire havens. The rest were treated to a musical education that universities could only envy (then and since), including Edward Yadzinski whose BPO clarinet career began simultaneously with the newly appointed maestro. (Ah, to have been a fly on the wall during their first rehearsals where the mysteries of the insurance salesman’s excitable Druids, and Russia's certifiable genius’ outlandish virgins competed for podium time with Brahms’ first mighty symphony.)
Given that coincidental circumstance, who better to host a panel of musicians now gathered to reflect on the life of a man who, in varying degrees, influenced their lives and livelihoods than Yadzinski (currently program annotator and historian for the BPO).
“What happens to the living when we die?” This line of poetry from We’re Late (W.H. Auden) would be sung as part of the concluding work, Time Cycle. As the affable moderator asked each of the panel for insights into Foss, the thematic thread for both the remembrance and the music was subliminally spun.
Composer Nils Vigeland recalled his exceptional trust in Foss as a teacher. Surveying an entire score, then zeroing in on a fragment only to remark “This is where I think you are” helped the Buffalo native find his voice.
“Lukas was the most extraordinary, flexible musician I ever met,” offered violinist and former BPO concertmaster Charles Haupt in a tone of sincere admiration. Then with a twinkle in his eye matched by the delivery, he allowed that Foss “had no respect for tradition whatever … using a mandolin in Messiah and the Pastorale Symphony.“ Immediately, the complexity of the indefatigable musician began to emerge.
Clarinetist Jerry Kirkbride came under Foss’ influence early on. While studying in Los Angeles he learned the fine art of improvisation by attending special UCLA programs. Later (1967) as one of the “Creative Associates” he explored the challenging world of multiphonics. After briefly surveying an extensive tome on the subject, “Do whatever you want” seemed the perfect words of advice.
For flautist Carol Wincenc, having a concerto written especially for her was a wonderful honour even though it was “finished moments before the première.” Slated to be performed again during the following concert, she repeated Foss’ pithy comment that “the right notes belong to Rameau; the wrong notes to me.”
Charles Bornstein spoke of his mentor’s musical language, influence by Xenakis and distinct conducting style (“His intensity was almost infantile”). Later, he served up the composer’s For Lenny with clear admiration for both the variations and the title’s subject.
David Felder’s career got a huge boost when Foss passed on the young composer’s first orchestral work only to be asked to write a new one for the Brooklyn Philharmonic. As the years of collaboration passed by, Felder realized that Foss was “under-appreciated as a composer” and “a musician of no limitation … embracing musical diversity” and leaving the warring camps (not quite as wide spread or vehement as the Wagner/Brahms ruckus at its peak) in the wings.
Foss hired percussionist Jan Williams on a recommendation, but once he’d proven his abilities ended up at many memorable recording sessions. On the way to the studio in Copenhagen, Foss announced to his ensemble colleagues that “We are short about 10 minutes.” Then, before you could say “creativity on demand,” the nimble genius had mapped out a new work that, without time to write any parts, became the delightfully titled, Non-Improvisation.
The remainder of the discussion became a chat around the kitchen table with stories galore about Foss. It was a pleasure for all to be in the jammed room (many had to be turned away) and feel the depth of love and friendship that was inspired by such a man. As Williams recalled, “He never forgot about us after leaving Buffalo.”
Thanks to the new venue (Burchfield Penney Art Center—a marvel of space, light and eclectic pieces) and A Musical Feast (leading the local programming parade in a fashion that Foss would and did appreciate) it was Foss’ music that would have the last word.
To begin, Amy Williams brought three Two-Part Inventions to the stage; music that spanned centuries yet still looks forward. Curiously, the middle movement (Bach’s best-loved BWV 772 needed a tad more breath to hold its own against its neighbours. Foss’ Invention # 2—buoyant, saucy and happily refreshing—was a constant pleasure.
Wincenc rendered the Renaissance Concerto with an intimacy that only comes after knowing the composer of a work especially written. Truly incredible was the “Recitative,” at times wondrous, haunting and uplifting. Pianist Claudia Hoca was superb. The crowd was mesmerized; somewhere, Foss could only help but smile. Enfant Terrible indeed?
Like an uninvited guest, Vigeland’s 3 1/3 Dances seemed totally out of place in this homage. The music appeared to be perpetually preparing to get to its point but failed to arrive. Wincenc and Haupt made hundreds of minimalist interventions but couldn’t rise above the uncomfortably busy tone, despite the fife and drone respite.
Williams played Solo with convincing authority, patience and sense of proportion even as the entire range of emotions (from dreamy uncertainty, through a wee bit of coyness to breathtaking adieu) worked their way into the art. Similar to the recollection by Yadzinski of Foss’ deconstruction of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (“Ten different presentations, each one convincing”), he seemed to be saying “How many different ways can I employ this melodic germ?” Another unanswered question to savour.
Finally, and so appropriately both for the concert and this RendezBlue festival, the Bernstein-admired Time Cycle, closed the program magnificently. Amanda DeBoer brought an engaging sense of drama and flexible tone production to the diverse texts, ably accompanied and punctuated (frequently dry percussion and piano; the clarinet and cello discreetly commenting with admirable control even as conductor Jan Williams kept the ensemble on track) with words and sounds (the woodblock clock, antique cymbals and chimes all underscoring the temporal theme), reminding everyone that it is, indeed, later than we think.
Foss’ mortal time on the planet has now passed, but through his music the much-desired “Lust” (in German: a heady mixture of lust, pleasure, joy and ecstasy) remains forever. JWR