Lukas Foss Prolific American Composer Dies

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Lukas Foss, the polyglot American composer, conductor and pianist who directed half a dozen Ojai Music Festivals, led marathon concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as head of composition at UCLA, has died. He was 86.

Foss died Sunday at his home in New York, according to his wife, Cornelia Foss. No cause of death was given, but Foss was known to have had Parkinson's disease.

Lukas Foss Lukas FossAmerican composer Aaron Copland once called Foss' works “among the most original and stimulating compositions in American music." Foss wrote more than 100 works, passing through three stylistic periods, from tonal, neoclassical writing through experimentation with 12-tone, electronic, chance and other techniques, then returning to complex but more listener-friendly works.

His output includes four symphonies, three string quartets and many choral, chamber, orchestral and stage pieces, embodying almost every style available to a classical composer.

His best-known works are “Time Cycle" (songs with orchestra after texts by W. H. Auden, A. E. Housman, Franz Kafka and Friedrich Nietzsche); “Baroque Variations" for orchestra (deconstruction of Bach, Handel and D. Scarlatti); “Echoi" (for four instruments); two operas, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (after Mark Twain) and “Griffelkin"; Symphony No. 3 ("Symphony of Sorrows); and “Renaissance Concerto" for flute and orchestra.

“The funny thing is that after all these works, I still don't have a recipe for composing," Foss told the New York Times in 1997.

“I always wonder where the notes are going to come from, and I still beat my head against the wall, as I'm doing now with the string quartet I've just started. It's always a kind of torture at first, until suddenly the door opens, and you get ideas, and you know what you want to do and how you want to do it. Then it's a piece of cake, but until it happens it's quite difficult."

Foss and his impressive portfolio were often overshadowed by his friend and colleague Leonard Bernstein.

“People would always talk about Lukas in relationship to Lenny, and that made people overlook what he was and is, which is a much more disciplined composer," composer William Bolcom told the Detroit Free Press in 2000.

Foss succeeded Schoenberg at UCLA in 1953 and taught there for 10 years. He also led the Ojai Music Festivals from 1961 to 1964, '79 to '80 and again in '81.

At Ojai, which underwent a number of financial difficulties, Foss was known as “a stylistic eclectic . . . a genial podium personality, a knowing technician, an imaginative program-builder and a facile pianist," according to former Los Angeles Times music critic Martin Bernheimer.

Foss conducted 12 marathon concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, each devoted to the works of one composer or one theme. The idea behind the six-hour concerts without intermissions was to attract younger audiences who were free to wander in and out as they liked.

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