While the recent passing of Lukas Foss (1922-2009) strikes a sad note for many of us, the release of this superb recording of The Prairie serves to both celebrate and elucidate his unique genius and extraordinary life. Born Lukas Fuchs in Berlin, Germany, Foss received his early training as a pianist and composer with Julius Goldstein (who, upon emigrating to the United States, changed his last name to Herford and ultimately became one of the most significant teachers of conducting and score study in American history). Foss and his family fled Germany in 1933, moving first to Paris, where he studied at the Lyceé Pasteur, and then to the U.S. in 1937. There Foss was accepted at the Curtis Institute of Music as a fifteen-year old prodigy, studying piano, composition (with Randall Thompson) and conducting (with Fritz Reiner). After earning diplomas with honors in all three disciplines, Foss furthered his education with Hindemith and Koussevitsky at Tanglewood during the earliest years of its existence.
Foss’s career exploded during the next decade. In 1953 he succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as professor of composition at the University of California Los Angeles, where he founded the groundbreaking Improvisation Chamber Ensemble.
Throughout his long career, Foss equally embraced the professional and educational spheres, appearing as guest conductor with many major orchestras in the United States and abroad in addition to holding music directorships in Brooklyn, Buffalo, Jerusalem, and Milwaukee. He often held concurrent faculty appointments and composer residencies at the most important American universities and conservatories. Though not known principally as a composer of choral music, Foss’ extensive oeuvre includes several distinctive choral works, among them the American Cantata, Behold! I Build An House, De Profundis, A Parable of Death, Psalms, and the cantata that launched his career, The Prairie.
Composed largely at Tanglewood in the early 1940s and premiered in its entirety under Robert Shaw in 1944, The Prairie reflects Foss’ predilection for amalgamating diverse compositional techniques. Audible influences include Debussy’s La Mer, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Hindemith’s Cardillac, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and most notably Copland’s Billy the Kid. Foss openly cited Aaron Copland as a major influence at this point of his compositional development, describing The Prairie to this writer (and others) as “very Coplandesque” and as a piece that “started my love for America, my new country.”
With its occasionally folksy treatment of texts from Carl Sandburg’s The Cornhuskers, The Prairie represents a bygone era.
Concerning the textual inspiration of The Prairie, Foss stated: “The attempt to develop an oratorio style based on the American soil and spirit is not new, but Carl Sandburg’s epic poem, it seems to me, offers new possibilities in its earthy and almost religious approach. . . . The protagonist, simply, is the prairie, [which] grows until it becomes the symbol for the all-embracing principle of growth itself.”
In spite of its consistent performance history, especially the often excerpted “Cool Prayers,” until now the only available recording of The Prairie was a 1976 Turnabout LP performed by the Gregg Smith Singers, Long Island Symphonic Choral Association, and Brooklyn Philharmonia, conducted by the composer. Three decades later, we finally have been given an exciting new recording.
The robust and fearless ensemble singing of the Providence Singers, outstanding orchestral playing of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and collective vocal agility of the soloists, integrated with conductor Clark’s commitment to the composer, has yielded a first-rate reading of this pioneering work. Particular sonic highlights can be found in soprano Elizabeth Weigle’s ravishing lower register, baritone Aaron Engebreth’s breathtaking clarity of tone, and Andrew Clark’s appropriately heroic interpretation.
Besides its artistic triumph, the excellent packaging of this recording—complete with relevant words from Foss himself and authoritative notes written by retired long-time Boston Globe chief music critic Richard Dyer—results in a clear-cut recommendation for immediate purchase.