Buffalo has been blessed with cultural and artistic riches throughout the years -- and one such gift came in the form of Lukas Foss, who died recently at 86 and was remembered this weekend at a tribute concert in the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
Foss was a transformative force in this city's arts scene. What he brought to Buffalo as a pioneering composer, conductor and pianist was an entirely new, exciting and exploratory direction. His tenure as musical director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra from 1963 to 1970 set the stage for decades to come. He was the reason his current successor, JoAnn Falletta, could celebrate the orchestra's deserved winning of two Grammys Sunday with the comment, "I just want to thank the Buffalo audience. Only because of them can we do pieces that are sophisticated and avant-garde."
Foss made a huge impact in Buffalo's creative reputation of the city, even beyond the orchestra. Already known as a brilliant pianist, forward-looking composer and conductor when he arrived here after years of BPO leadership by maestros such as William Steinberg and Josef Krips, who were immersed in the great, deep, dark romantic European heritage interpretation of music, he was a dramatic lunge into the future of orchestral music.
Essentially, according to BPO historian Edward Yadzinski, Buffalo really had a Viennese orchestra on stage with leaders trained in Vienna. Suddenly, Foss shows up with his eyes not only on the past but on the future. And he let the future and the past fight it out onstage. It was an exciting time in this city's music scene; within a year, Foss had launched the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at the University at Buffalo, persuading the university -- which in turn persuaded then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller -- to support a pioneering program in which 19 composers and performers from all over the world came to Buffalo, in full-time non-teaching jobs equivalent to research positions, for the purpose of playing what was known as "new music."
This, his work with the Philharmonic in new music programming and his combining of performers from the UB group and the Philharmonic in synergistic chamber music concerts at the modern art mecca of the Albright-Knox turned world attention to Buffalo.
Foss instilled new-world excitement into an old-world, European orchestra that loved playing Brahms and Beethoven. That had a wonderful effect. Major publications started to take note, and many of the UB concerts played at the art gallery were taken to New York's Carnegie Hall as "Evenings for New Music." Around the world today, Buffalo still has a keen reputation for new music, and the university and orchestra have maintained that reputation. Buffalo is one of the places considered, along with Paris, New York and Darmstadt in Germany, when new composers around the world, from Argentina to Tokyo to Sydney, seek a venue to have new pieces performed. The musical excitement Foss brought to Buffalo lingers. That's quite a legacy.