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Remembering Lukas Foss

The Milwaukee Symphony’s composer-conductor

May. 12, 2009
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He was born on Aug. 15, 1922, in Berlin, a precocious child who soon showed an interest in music, composing his first work at age 7. Like many families of that time, the Fuchs left Nazi Germany, first to Paris in 1933, and thence to the United States two years later. It was here that young Lukas changed his last name to Foss, and a remarkable new life began.

Foss took up piano, composition and conducting simultaneously with Randall Thompson, Fritz Reiner, Sergei Koussevitzky and Paul Hindemith; the latter threw him out of his class on several occasions, remarking to Koussevitzky, "Foss wants to know everything but not to follow!" A more prescient observation could scarcely have been made.

By the time we encountered Lukas Foss-when he became the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's music director in 1981, he had long been a noted conductor with the Buffalo, Brooklyn and Jerusalem orchestras, pianist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and composer of numerous works in many genres. Foss had big plans for the MSO. His mercurial genius would accept nothing less.

"A formidable composer, pianist and conductor, Foss eludes facile categorization, for he was all of those and much more," recalls Roger Ruggeri, longtime MSO principal bass. "He could deliver a brilliant speech or an absolutely cogent and thought-provoking lecture off the top of his head."

The fact that Foss' musical involvement was so diverse had a profound effect upon his conducting. As Ruggeri says, "Foss constantly strove toward new realizations of the music. Often, at an initial rehearsal, it seemed to the orchestra that he was looking at a piece for the first time."

At a lecture in Buffalo, N.Y., Foss made his vision crystal clear: "We should play old music as if the ink were hardly dry… We should also play the new music with the same awe, respect and distance we usually accord to the classics."

Foss' concert programs reflected his lifelong championing of "new music." During the 1981-86 Foss Era, the MSO held both Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein festivals (attended by the composers), and the orchestra's repertoire expanded greatly into contemporary, American and lesser-known works of the more famed composers. Foss premiered two of his own works with the MSO: Exeunt (1986) and With Music Strong (1989), composed in honor of former Chorus director Margaret Hawkins. The MSO celebrated its 25th anniversary under Foss' baton, embarked upon a summer concert series at the Milwaukee County Zoo, recorded its first compact discs and performed a dozen concerts in Britain, the Netherlands, West Germany and Austria.

During that European tour there was an incident that said so much about Foss. The MSO performed Beethoven's Seventh Symphony exactly according to Foss' interpretation, which some musical "purists" in Munich took umbrage with, Ruggeri recalls. "A small contingent of students…shouted during the final applause 'We don't need Las Vegas Beethoven!' As the somewhat embarrassed audience applauded louder and the students increased their own volume, Foss was overjoyed, for his Beethoven was recognized and was causing controversy."

Lukas Foss conducted the first MSO concerts I ever attended. One of my strongest memories of those days was during a performance of Ravel's Bolero. Toward the very end, as the orchestra's enormous sound wave is beginning to crest, Foss suddenly dropped his arms and just stood there, looking at the ensemble before him, seemingly entranced. The moment spoke volumes.

With Foss' death in New York on Feb. 1, Ruggeri observes how "it's become even more evident that Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra were privileged to have had him in our midst, for he was clearly one of our era's greatest and most provocative musical geniuses."

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