IN: Reviews

Rare Foss and Familiar Copland


Lukas Foss (file photo)
Lukas Foss (file photo)

Americana through the lenses of modernists was on order at Sander’s Theatre Friday from Harvard Summer School Chorus, four vocal soloists, plus the members of The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) under the direction of Andrew Clark, Director of Choral Activities at Harvard. Confident and secure performances yielded a fine, rare hearing of Lukas Foss’s The Prairie. According to Clark:

During our brief six weeks together, the Summer Chorus wrestled with some of the ubiquitous and thorny issues that permeate the history of American music…among these… cultural ownership (can/should/how a neophyte German-Jewish composer mythologizes the American frontier), the intrinsic benefits and dangers of music for nationalistic purposes (left-leaning artists ‘romancing the folk’ as scholar Richard Taruskin puts it), and identifying the increasingly homogenized markers of the American sound during and after the Second World war.

For how does one “categorize” Foss in 1942 at age 20, newly naturalized American citizen, and who in that same year wrote The Prairie, the major work on Friday’s program? Did he spring fully formed into an “American musical vocabulary” in this early piece? Let’s briefly take a look at his background:

Born Lukas Fuchs in Berlin, he was soon recognized as a child prodigy. He began piano and theory lessons with Julius Goldstein [Herford], but following the German electorate’s “surrender” to the National Socialist Party, the installation of the Nazi regime with the appointment of Hitler as chancellor, and the commencement of state persecution of Jews, his parents emigrated swiftly to Paris in 1933. He continued his studies there: piano with Lazare Levy, composition with Noël Gallon, orchestration with Felix Wolfes, and flute with Louise Moyse. In 1937 his family resettled in the United States, where Foss continued his studies at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, with Isabelle Vengerova for piano, Rosario Scalero and Randall Thompson for composition, and Fritz Reiner for conducting.

During his first year in America, Foss met Aaron Copland, who had a decisive influence on him and his musical direction. As Foss later recalled, “I had fallen in love with America because of people like Aaron,” and he once wrote to Copland, “Yours is the only American music I have performed consistently over the years.” Foss continued his composition studies with Paul Hindemith at Yale (1939–40) and his conducting studies at the Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood) during the summers of 1939–43 with Serge Koussevitzky, who engaged him in 1943 as the pianist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 1949.” (The Milken Archive of Jewish Music)

The Prairie made Lukas Foss famous and launched the career of one of America’s most distinguished musicians—composer, conductor, pianist, and educator. Foss was 17 when he first read Carl Sandburg’s poem, and he started composing a secular cantata on this text almost immediately; he wrote most of it in the summers of 1941 and 1942. On October 15, 1943, Koussevitzky conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in an orchestral suite drawn from the full score; seven months later, on May 15, 1944, Robert Shaw led the premiere of the complete cantata [with the Collegiate Chorale – jwe] in New York’s Town Hall; after another seven months Artur Rodzinski brought the work to the New York Philharmonic. The work won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award as the most important new choral work of the year. (Richard Dyer, from his highly informative notes accompanying the BMOP Sound recording of The Prairie, a valuable disk available here.)

Armed with this information, it is evident that Foss received nonpareil training, and he was clearly heavily influenced by the music—and guidance—of Aaron Copland. So it would seem that his compositional vocabulary would reflect that of his mentor, and his embrace of counterpoint would also point to Hindemith. The Prairie exhibits these influences quite clearly, yet it is also a work of youthfully ambitious originality, sometimes at the expense of concision and, occasionally, coherence. Having said that, there is no denying that The Prairie is a fascinating piece, made even more fascinating, perhaps, by its embrace of the first poem of Carl Sandburg’s 1918-vintage collection of verse, The Cornhuskers. Sandburg, too, writes with a uniquely American voice, verse that, for me, often conjures up the art of Grant Wood. The collaboration of Foss and Sandburg, then, makes for quite an interesting intersection.

It would be overstatement to characterize The Prairie as “an undiscovered masterwork.” Yet, it is fully deserving of hearing today, having had only a few previous public outings until The Providence Singers and BMOP took up the work and recorded it in March, 2007. Andrew Clark also conducted Singers for that occasion. That earlier history clearly paid dividends to Friday’s performance.

Given the transient nature of the Harvard Summer Chorus, an ensemble of fresh-faced high-school and college-aged singers with the addition of a several seasoned local singers, it was something of a wonder that under the knowing direction of Clark, they gave such a confident and clearly well rehearsed exposition of this lengthy (ca. 50 minutes) and occasionally rambling music. Not once did one feel that these singers were less than fully committed to their task. The four soloists, Sarah Moyer, soprano; Caitlin Felsman, mezzo-soprano; Charles Blandy, tenor; and Paul Max Tipton, bass, were also completely equal to their several challenges; with Tipton especially offered compelling and burnished tone. The BMOP players were fully engaged in their music making, with noteworthy solo contributions from Eric Berlin, trumpet, Jennifer Slowik, oboe and English horn, and Sarah Brady, flute and piccolo.

The concert began with the two sets of Old American Songs as (re)imagined by Aaron Copland. The program book noted that the “…performance weaves several popular choral arrangements of the songs by Irving Fine, David Brunner, Glenn Koponen, and R. Wilding-White into the fabric of Copland’s orchestration for solo voice.” Though these hybrids were of varying degrees of success, and it must be said that the four soloists noted above were occasionally covered by the orchestra,  it was  excellent programming to have these songs, so lovingly set in their original form, launch this engaging evening of choral Americana.

This same program, with identical content and performers, repeats on Sunday, August 3rd at 3:00 PM in the Peterborough (NH) Town House as part of the Monadnock Music Festival.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 34 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 40 years.

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