The booklet informs us, ‘Lukas Foss, b. 1922’, but sadly, Foss passed away on February 1st of this year. So, a release which surely would have brought renewed attention to a worthwhile American composer now also must serve as a memorial.
Foss (born ‘Fuchs’) came to the United States in 1937 from Berlin by way of Paris. For a time, he and his friend Leonard Bernstein followed similar paths. Both attended the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, studying piano with Iabelle Vengerova and conducting with Fritz Reiner. Both also orbited Serge Koussevitsky at Tanglewood. Bernstein became...well, Lenny, and Foss became a respected all-round musician and teacher whose achievements might glitter less, but all that glitters is not gold, of course.
The Prairie was written when Foss was only 21. His inspiration was the poetry of Carl Sandburg - specifically, his collection The Cornhuskers. As Richard Dyer’s excellent booklet note relates, Koussevitzky presented an orchestral suite based on the work in 1943, and Robert Shaw premiered the complete cantata a year later. It won a New York Music Critics’ Circle Award that same year. New doors opened for Foss, who never lost his affection for what is a juvenile work only in the sense of year-counting. Nevertheless, The Prairie was recorded just once, in 1976, and that composer-conducted LP (unheard by me) appears not to have been reissued on CD.
Sandburg’s wide-ranging poetry, having its own music, invites and rewards Foss’s settings. Sometimes the American prairie itself speaks, and sometimes the men and women who labour and live upon it. The text’s positive everything-is-possible tone - matched by the music - turns out to be almost as right for the United States in 2009 as it was in 1939, when the poems were published. Dyer misses the mark, I think, when he writes that Sandburg’s text ‘feels like a liability,’ but to each his own.
Given the composer’s age and background, it is remarkable how ‘American’ The Prairie is. Its opening is pure Copland, and there are stylistic affinities (unsurprisingly) with Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein (his Airborned Symphony) and (more surprisingly) later Americans. In fact, Foss’s use of repetition and syncopation reminds me of a much later American work, that being John Adams’ Harmonium. (Not that Foss was a protominimalist!) When The Prairie first appeared, Virgil Thomson mentioned Haydn, Weill, and Hindemith as stylistic contexts. Undoubtedly it is a work of many influences, but only rarely does it feel derivative, and it never feels incoherent.
Obviously, I don’t know how this recording compares to its predecessor, but the performance is completely competent. Although the orchestra is not a large one - 46 musicians - it isn’t undermanned, and the playing is polished. Tenor Frank Kelley sounds a little stilted in his solos, and the baritone Aaron Engebreth sounds similarly uncomfortable. The soprano and mezzo are fine, though, and the choral contribution has personality and commitment. Still, it would be nice to hear the New York Philharmonic tackle The Prairie, as it did in 1945. Let’s not wait until the American tricentennial!