- Lukas Foss (1922-2009)
- Elizabeth Weigle, soprano
- Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, mezzo-soprano
- Frank Kelley, tenor
- Aaron Engebreth, baritone
- Providence Singers
- Boston Modern Orchestra Project
- Andrew Clark, conductor
The title itself, The Prairie, gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect. Copland-esque open harmonies abound, proto-Bernstein fugues wind their way in, and Carl Sandburg’s 1918 poem is very much a product of its time (although the notes make the point that its now toe-curling treatment of Native Americans was far in advance of Hollywood’s at the same time).
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).
Lukas Foss died aged 86 on 1 February 2009. His legacy as a composer is considerable and varied, and there were few areas of American musical life from the 1950s to the 1980s that did not feel his influence in some way. His important musical directorships, firstly at Buffalo and then at Brooklyn, Jerusalem, and Milwaukee, brought his controversial musical ideology into conflict with some of his audiences, performers and managers.
Lukas Foss died on February 1 of this year at the age of 86. Composer, conductor, orchestra builder, virtuoso pianist, and respected teacher, Foss wore many hats after he made his first big splash with this audacious song of praise to the American spirit. He had been composing since age seven, but it was Robert Shaw’s 1944 premiere of this work that brought him to the attention of the musical world. The Prairie was enthusiastically programmed by orchestras and choral societies throughout the country, and won the 1945 New York Music Critics’ Circle Award.
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.
I find it astonishing that this delicious oratorio hasn’t been performed or recorded much. It’s every bit a crowd-pleasure and very much in the tradition of middle-American composers of the 20s, 30s, and 40s, such as Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, and Aaron Copland. Lukas Foss was born in Berlin in 1923, then moved to Philadelphia as omens of war threatened Europe. He moved to American and studied with Sergei Koussevitzky for several years before attending Yale, where he studied with Paul Hindemith.
The German-born, American composer Lukas Foss passed away several weeks ago after a long and distinguished career. Here is a recent recording of WWII-era work that is accessible yet complex, a delightful piece that truly deserves this high quality digital recording. I am glad to be back: enjoy.
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.
Lukas Foss based his 53-minute cantata The Prairie on Carl Sandburg’s poem of the same name from his collection of Americana called The Cornhuskers. Written in the summers of 1941 and 1942, music from The Prairie first was heard in an orchestral suite played by the Boston Symphony directed by Serge Koussevitzky Oct. 15, 1943, and May 15, 1944, Robert Shaw led the cantata’s premiere in New York’s Town Hall.
And from conductor Andrew Clark and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project comes The Prairie (1943) by Lukas Foss, using Carl Sandburg’s poem from The Cornhuskers. This ambitious cantata includes four excellent soloists—Elizabeth Weigle, Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, Frank Kelley and Aaron Engebreth—and another chorus new to me, the Providence Singers (of which Clark is artistic director), all of whom make Foss’s spacious landscape spring to life.