It was Lukas Foss' Quintets for Orchestra that lingered in memory long after encountering it at the July 27 concert of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra led by Michael Tilson Thomas. As if on cue, just after the last summer review was filed, arriving in the mailbox was a new double-disc set of Foss' complete symphonies from BMOP Sound, the house label of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and conductor Gil Rose. I was soon devouring more from this unpredictable and often overlooked master.
Foss is a pillar of the Tanglewood history, right after Copland and Bernstein. But that's part of the problem with his legacy, since who can follow Copland and Bernstein? What more is needed after them?
There are countless books about those two giants of American music. But I can find no evidence of a full, published biography of Foss, who was born in Berlin and died in Manhattan in 2009 at 86. Besides being a composer and a noted pianist, he was also a conductor with long tenures as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Brooklyn Philharmonic.
There's a great deal of Foss' music available on disc, however, and I was pleased to find "Quintets" already in my library, part of a big retrospective package of Bernstein concerts with the New York Philharmonic. It's a noisy recording, though, and the performance is rather jagged, not nearly as subtle and refined as what Tilson Thomas delivered in Ozawa Hall.
The new Foss collection from Boston Modern Orchestra Project, on the other hand, is hugely satisfying and substantial and beautifully performed. The Symphony No. 1 in G (1944) is grand and romantic but also brings to mind the Great Plains sound of Copland and the urban style of Bernstein. Perhaps it's not fair to cite those guys yet again, but their huge footprints are impossible to forget.
Foss' Symphony No. 2 (1955-58) shows him as his own man, boldly striding into the modernist era. Actually, the piece allegedly pays homage to Bach and carries the subtitle "Symphony of Chorales." But there's hardly a whiff of the tight counterpoint or religious atmosphere that would suggest. Instead, the long opening Toccata is a headlong rush, with fierce strings, growling saxophones and explosive percussion.
A unique combination of spaciousness and forward motion is also present in the Symphony No. 3 "Symphony of Sorrows" (1991). Its four movements alternate between tonal and atonal techniques in sometimes daring orchestrations before concluding with a reverent movement for brass.
If that last descriptive makes you scratch your head – at Foss' choice of brass as the dominant voice for something titled "Prayer" — then you're getting a sense of his individuality and inventiveness.
Foss managed to be both fluent and original in just about every realm of musical language, new and old. The Symphony No. 4 (1994) shows him at his most eclectic and evocative, again almost despite his subtitle, "Window to the Past." It does include a lengthy movement with a hushed dynamic that suggests a kind of memory book. But the finale, "Fireworks," just keeps venturing onward.