A true Renaissance man, Lukas Foss (born August 12, 1922, Berlin, Germany–died February 1, 2009, New York, New York, United States) was that rare breed of musician, equally renowned as a composer, conductor, pianist, educator, and spokesman for his art. During his lifetime, he received many prestigious honors and awards signifying his contributions to the twentieth-century musical landscape. Mr. Foss eagerly embraced the musical languages of his time in his works, producing a body of over one hundred works that Aaron Copland described as including "among the most original and stimulating compositions in American Music." As Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic, and Milwaukee Symphony, Foss was an effective champion of living composers and brought new life to the standard repertoire. His legendary performances as a piano soloist, in repertoire ranging from J. S. Bach's D Minor Concerto to Leonard Bernstein's Age of Anxiety, earned him a place among the elite keyboard artists of the last century.
As a conductor, Mr. Foss was hailed for the adventurous mix of traditional and contemporary music that he programmed, and he appeared with the world's greatest orchestras, including the Boston, Chicago, London, and Leningrad Symphonies, the Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras, Santa Cecilia Orchestra of Rome, and the New York, Berlin, Los Angeles, and Tokyo Philharmonics.
In 1937, Foss, then a fifteen-year-old prodigy, came to America to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. By this point he had already been composing for eight years under the tutelage of Julius Herford in Berlin. He also studied in Paris with Lazare Levy, Noel Gallon, Felix Wolfes, and Louis Moyse after his family fled Nazi Germany in 1933. At Curtis, Foss’ teachers included Fritz Reiner (conducting) and Isabelle Vengerova (piano). The young musician graduated with honors from Curtis at 18. He then continued his studies in conducting with Serge Koussevitsky at The Tanglewood Music Center and in composition with Paul Hindemith at Tanglewood and Yale University. From 1944 to 1950, Foss was the pianist in the Boston Symphony Orchestra and, in 1945, became the youngest composer ever to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Foss succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as Professor of Composition at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1953. In 1957, he founded the Improvisational Chamber Ensemble, a group that improvised music in concert, working not from a score, but from Foss' ideas. The effects of these experiments soon appeared in his composed works, where Foss began probing and questioning the ideas of tonality, notation, and fixed form. He even scrutinized the concept of time in his pioneering work Time Cycle, which received the New York Music Critic's Circle Award in 1961, and was recorded on the CBS label. At its premiere (for which the Improvisational Chamber Ensemble provided improvised interludes between the movements), Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic performed the entire work twice in the same evening in an unprecedented gesture of respect.
Foss’ ideas–and his compelling way of expressing them–garnered him considerable respect as an educator as well. He taught at Tanglewood and was composer-in-residence at Harvard University, the Manhattan School of Music, Carnegie Melon University, Yale University, and Boston University. In 1983 he was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2000 he received the Academy's Gold Medal in honor of his distinguished career in music. The holder of eight honorary doctorates (including a 1991 Doctor of Music degree from Yale), he was in constant demand as a lecturer, and delivered the prestigious Mellon Lectures at Washington's National Gallery of Art in 1986.
A longtime resident of New York City, Foss passed away there while at home on February 1, 2009. He is survived by his wife Cornelia, a noted painter, two children, a grown son and daughter, and three grandchildren.