Peers laud former BPO conductor Lukas Foss and his musical genius

By Mark Sommer

February 9  2009

A previously planned tribute to Lukas Foss and the revolutionary impact he had on Buffalo's cultural landscape turned into a heartfelt commemoration Sunday.

Foss, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's fourth conductor, died one week earlier in New York City at age 86.

A 50-minute panel discussion before an overflow crowd in the new Burchfield Penney Art Center's Peter & Elizabeth C. Tower Auditorium heard eight of Foss' musical colleagues reminisce. Topics ranged from Foss' artistic brilliance and rejection of musical boundaries to his spontaneous nature, selflessness and to add levity horrendous driving skills.

A concert followed featuring several of Foss' adventurous and acclaimed compositions.

"There was nothing that stopped Lukas from doing anything that he thought was interesting, new, creative, ingenious and, most importantly, served the cause of the music he was playing or conducting," said Charles Haupt, the longtime concertmaster who worked with Foss during his tenure at the BPO between 1963 and 1970. "He was the most extraordinary, intellectually honest man I ever knew."

Carol Wincenc, a flute player and longtime friend of Foss, called him a "towering, charismatic, extraordinary figure."

Foss came to the United States in 1937 after fleeing the Nazis with his family. He was celebrated as a composer and pianist before taking the BPO maestro's baton after Josef Krips. Seismic changes to the standard orchestral repertoire became quickly apparent when his first concert featured Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

Foss was the singular figure in propelling Buffalo into a center for avant-garde music. He also helped found the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts on the University at Buffalo campus, which also pushed the boundaries of classical music.

"Within just three seasons, the Buffalo Philharmonic led the entire symphonic world in the performance of new music," said Edward Yadzinski, the panel moderator, former clarinetist and orchestra historian.

Foss even brought the Grateful Dead to Kleinhans Music Hall to perform with the BPO.

"Lukas was a musician of no limitations," said David Felder, who heads UB's composition department. "He did it all, and people had no idea what to make of this."

After an anecdote about a brilliant presentation Foss gave on the spot concerning Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Felder said, "He was a brilliant tour de force, and I've never seen anyone like him to this day."

Yadzinski recalled a conversation with Seymour H. Knox Jr., in which the art patron who played such a key role in Buffalo's cultural life said, "Lukas Foss is the only genius I have ever met."

Yadzinski said he once asked Foss about the difference between improvisation and composition, and the answer has remained with him.

"Foss said, 'When we improvise, we're working with something we already know. When we compose, we're creating something we don't know.' " I think it's a profound insight. It gives you an idea of the extent of the true quest of the man and his music," Yadzinski said.

Charles Z. Bornstein, a pianist and musicologist, said he was grateful to have grown up in Buffalo and be exposed to such "cutting-edge music."

Bornstein suggested Buffalonians have much to be proud of, from the musical heritage left by Foss and others to the quality and depth of art and culture here that he said few cities of equal size can match.

"I think this idea of modern art that was put forward by the people that were here, like Lukas Foss, Seymour Knox and Gordon Smith [of Albright- Knox Gallery], turns out to have been quite a successful experiment," Bornstein said.

The Foss tribute capped the four-day "Time Cycle: A RendezBlue Festival" at the museum, which opened in its new home in November 2008.


Made possible by the generous support of

Irene Haupt, Photographer

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