Lukas Foss’ 1944 oratorio The Prairie, based on a poem by Carl Sandburg, easily falls into the same category as extended American vernacular vocal works such as Kurt Weill’s Down in the Valley (1948) and Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land (1954). However, unlike these other pieces, The Prairie – which went a large way toward making the reputation of its composer -- was forgotten. This was in spite of the fact that it was premiered under the baton of Robert Shaw and premiered with his Chorale, won a New York Critic’s Circle Award, enthusiastic praise from Virgil Thomson, and even its poet, Sandburg. However, while praise from poets, critics, and exposure on mass mediums such as radio might help get a piece into the public consciousness for a time, it does not ensure its popularity in perpetuity, and for some reason Foss’ The Prairie missed the wagon train to immortality. Richard Dyer, annotator of BMOP/sound’s first ever recording of The Prairie, identifies Sandburg’s poem as part of the trouble; written in 1918, it hasn’t aged well, its wide-eyed, incurious American sentiments running afoul of future generations illuminated by the advent of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, political correctness, and other forward developments in American culture.
However, this conclusion suggests that The Prairie is more of a period piece than it actually is. As this recording, featuring the Providence Singers, soloists, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project on its own label, makes clear, Foss’ The Prairie is an exceptionally fine American cantata, made all the more amazing as its composer was only 22 years of age when he put the double bars at the end of it. The style of The Prairie is completely assured, to such extent that late in life Foss stated that he wasn’t sure how he had pulled it off owing to his inexperience at the time, and certainly could not re-create its idiom, despite having earned that experience in the interim. Comparable to Copland, under whose spell Foss was working in 1944, it shows a different absorption of French style than Copland commonly displays; Foss’ language is more colorful and polyphonically dense, which may spring to some extent from his studies with Paul Hindemith, which Foss had lately completed when The Prairie crossed his desk. Foss had also studied at the Curtis Institute with Randall Thompson, and this is apparent in some of the choral writing here; The Prairie is clearly one of the major accomplishments in Foss’ varied and prolific career.
The BMOP disc might be a labor of love; certainly no company that could have recorded The Prairie before did so, although Foss recorded a single chorus of it in 1976. Nevertheless, it is a very fine performance with a good front line of singers, with mezzo-soprano Gigi Mitchell-Velasco being a standout. The Hybrid Super Audio CD reproduces with striking fidelity in most systems, though in your car it might sound a little bright, particularly in passages where the trumpets are the main foreground element. BMOP/sound just barely managed to get this one out before Foss passed away at the age of 86; of any music he had composed that had never been recorded, this is probably the most desirable title anyone could have revived, and it provides a fitting testimonial to a great American composer.