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Foss celebrates 80th with premiere of new orchestral piece at Symphony Hall

By David J. Craig

The notes don’t flow from Lukas Foss quite as easily as they used to, he says, but at the age of 80, the acclaimed composer, conductor, and pianist still writes constantly, often up to six hours a day in his Manhattan apartment. He has not needed a piano to create music for many years -- the complex melodies and counterpoint for which he is famous take shape entirely in his mind, and he hurriedly scribbles down the notes.

Lukas Foss’ latest work, Symphonic Fantasy, will be premiered by the Boston University Symphony Orchestra at Boston’s Symphony Hall on Tuesday, November 26, at 8 p.m. The concert celebrates the acclaimed composer, conductor, and pianist’s 80th birthday. Foss, a CFA professor of music, says Symphonic Fantasy is accessible and “more tonal” than much of his recent work, although it is a particularly challenging piece for musicians to perform. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

 
  Lukas Foss’ latest work, Symphonic Fantasy, will be premiered by the Boston University Symphony Orchestra at Boston’s Symphony Hall on Tuesday, November 26, at 8 p.m. The concert celebrates the acclaimed composer, conductor, and pianist’s 80th birthday. Foss, a CFA professor of music, says Symphonic Fantasy is accessible and “more tonal” than much of his recent work, although it is a particularly challenging piece for musicians to perform. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
 

Foss’ latest composition, entitled Symphonic Fantasy, will be premiered by the Boston University Symphony Orchestra at Boston’s Symphony Hall on Tuesday, November 26, at 8 p.m. The concert, conducted by David Hoose, a CFA professor of music and director of orchestral activities, celebrates Foss’ 80th birthday and will include performances of Brahms’ Schicksalslied, featuring the Boston University Symphonic Chorus, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

A reflective piece that is in turns tragic, humorous, and playful, Symphonic Fantasy is accessible for listeners, says Foss, a CFA music professor since 1991, but challenging for players. “My work is written for people who can play,” he says. “They have to be damn good.” The work was commissioned by BU last year for the occasion.

As a prelude to the concert, the College of Fine Arts will host a symposium, entitled New Music and Its Public, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, November 23, at the BU Concert Hall at 855 Commonwealth Ave. Free and open to the public, it will be moderated by Theodore Antoniou, a CFA professor of music and music director of BU’s new music ensemble ALEA III, and will feature Foss, Phyllis Curtin, CFA dean emerita, Leon Kirchner, a composer and professor emeritus at Harvard University, and Mark DeVoto, a composer and professor at Tufts University.

Widely considered one of the greatest American composers of his generation, Foss, a contemporary and close friend of Leonard Bernstein, took up composing seriously in 1937 when he was 15, soon after he and his family moved to New York City from their native Germany. By the age of 31, Foss had become the youngest composer ever to have a new work performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the youngest recipient ever of a Guggenheim Fellowship, had won the Prix de Rome and a Fulbright Scholarship, and had taught at Tanglewood and spent six years as the in-house pianist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Foss devoted himself in his 30s primarily to composing, and he soon earned a reputation for creating immensely challenging and sometimes controversial pieces. His work often experimented with atonality, featured improvisation, and employed nontraditional sound sources -- he sometimes instructed musicians to stomp on the floor, shout, or bang any object within reach. Foss’ work over the past two decades has been less overtly avant-garde, combining experimental sounds and textures with neoclassical form. “Freshness is not newness,” he once told an interviewer. “The avant-garde is a bandwagon.”

Also regarded as a fine conductor and first-rate pianist, Foss, whose signature compositions include Time Cycle (1959-60), Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (1978), and Renaissance Concerto (1986), maintains an active conducting and performing schedule, in addition to teaching at BU.

He began work on Symphonic Fantasy a year ago, and it took about nine months to write. “This new piece sounds a little like my earlier work because now and then I used a sketch that I had written much earlier,” he says. “It’s also much more tonal than a lot of my recent work. It starts out slow and contrapuntal, and then gets adventurous.”

Tickets for the November 26 concert are $35, $20, and $10, and can be purchased through the Symphony Hall box office by calling 617-266-1200. For information about the November 23 symposium, call 353-3349. Information about other upcoming College of Fine Arts school of music performances can be found at www.bu.edu/cfa.

       



22 November 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations