It was a moving occasion, in tribute to a remarkable musician who added ineradicable distinction to American musical life. A native of Berlin, and already a composer and pianist of prodigious gifts and accomplishment when he came to America at the age of fifteen, Lukas Foss (1922-2009) had a long and venerable career as a conductor, teacher, and writer on music in addition to his permanent contribution as a composer. The Alea III ensemble at Boston University, where he had maintained an association for more than half a century and where he had taught a generation of young composers during his last years, paid tribute on March 2 by performing several of his works, and by offering Epigrams, short pieces by 19 of his recent students. The hall of the Tsai Performance Center was perhaps half full, but most of those adoring friends were on hand for the occasion, as were his widow Cornelia and their son and daughter. And I was both happy and sad to be present; I studied composition with Lukas at Tanglewood in the summer of 1959.
The program began with For Toru, for flute and string quintet (including double bass), written in 1997 in memory of Toru Takemitsu, Japan’s most distinguished composer of 20th century. This elegiac piece featured some dense but colorful chordal harmony, episodes of a steady pulse, and a lot of bent pitches such as a shakuhachi player would have relished. There were glissandi and microtones in the strings, too, and it was interesting to watch the players as they coped with slow vibrato in a microtonal context. The flute solo, beautifully played by Kathleen Boyd, included a motif of three upward whole steps — almost a tribute to the chorale in Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, and that too might honor Takemitsu.
Two movements from Foss’s Echoi, a 12-minute excerpt of a much larger work in four movements (1964), followed. I had last heard this piece live in Oregon in 1967, when I also heard him lecture about it. He wrote it for his own Improvisation Chamber Ensemble (piano, clarinet, cello, and percussion) with a view to exploiting their instrumental skills to the full and even beyond, and it is an exciting adventure when heard in its entirety. The closest that these movements came to actual improvisation was in the choice of different fragments indicated in the score and separately cued as required by the conductor. Director Theodore Antoniou cued with his right hand, while clutching his baton around its shaft with his left; there was no mistaking those careful gestures.
The Elegy for Anne Frank (1989) for piano and small group — solo strings, horn, trombone, and percussion — was a deeply gripping piece. It consisted of several episodes separated by recitation from Anne Frank’s diary. The episodes were alternately lyrically tonal and dramatically graphic, expressing Anne’s hope for a better world even while the Nazis goose-stepped outside the secret Annexe. At one moment one heard upper-register piano like a stylized music-box; at another, whole-tone harmony and harsh dissonances in string clusters (some of the players simultaneously singing), low-register brass, a threatening beat on the bass drum. The dramatic reading was well executed by Carly Waldman.
Following the intermission, the Boston University Chamber Singers, directed by Ann Howard Jones, presented (with piano accompaniment) two movements, from the original nine, of Foss’s earliest large-scale work, The Prairie, first performed in 1944. This cantata, on an expansive text by Carl Sandburg, reveals influence from Aaron Copland’s open-spaces style, but well assimilated with a good deal of original color. It was a pity not to hear the entire piece, but the interested listener can find a recent CD by the Providence Singers and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Andrew Clark, the first complete recording of The Prairie in many years. Introducing the next work on the program, Ann Jones said that Foss’s Behold, I build an house had been commissioned for and presented by Boston University in connection with the opening of the Marsh Chapel in 1952. The chorus handled the complex harmony of this piece with expert precision and clarity.
It was hard to keep track of nineteen different short Epigrams played in rapid succession, but one was aware of a striking diversity of styles and spirit, some seriously somber, some irrepressibly gay, some dense and percussive, some spare and linear, and all making the most of a simultaneously solemn and optimistic occasion. (Yes, of course I heard the Scarlatti quotes, and bits of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto — a favorite of Foss’s.) It was apparent, too, from the composers’ individual comments on their Epigrams that Lukas Foss had made a powerful impress on their studies and on their lives. The performances may have had a few problems, especially in quickly shifting gears from piece to piece, but there was no doubt about the former students’ abilities and their commitment, and their pleasure in honoring the memory of a friend. The 19 composers, in order, were John H. Wallace, Panagiotis Liaropoulos, Ronald G. Vigue, Po-Chun Wang, Gon Hwang, Michalis Economou, Mauricio Pauly, Julian Wachner, Margaret McAllister, Jakov Jakoulov, Apostolos Paraskevas, Ramon P. Castillo, Ivana Lisak, Jeremy Van Buskirk, Paul Vash, Pedro Malpic, Jorge Grossmann, Matt Van Brink, and Mark Berger.