Lukas Foss, “Complete Symphonies”, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose (BMOP Sound). During his tenure as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic (1963-1971) Lukas Foss led the very good regional orchestra he had inherited in a new direction, aiming it toward the international renown and broader repertory that such subsequent directors as Michael Tilson Thomas, Semyon Bychkov and JoAnn Falletta have achieved. But all was not peaches and cream at first because Foss’ expanded outreach included much avant-garde music that did not sit well with many of the BPO’s long-time subscribers. Lost in the shuffle over the years is the fact that Foss’ own orchestral compositions were nowhere near so wild and woolly as the shockers by Stockhausen, Xenakis and other contemporaries he had championed.
This new recording of Foss’ four symphonies by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (just named Ensemble of the Year by Musical America) will certainly give open-minded Buffalo listeners a new perspective on Foss’ orchestral music. Spanning the years 1944 to 1995, much of this music is conventionally tonal and no more advanced than the early conservative works by Elliot Carter or even that 20th century American mainstay William Schuman. Foss was just 22 when he wrote Symphony No. 1, a thoroughly engaging student work that could pass for early Samuel Barber. Composed in 1958, No. 2 is called “Symphony of Chorales.” Obviously more mature and polished than No. 1, this may be the best of the lot. It has the strong reference to the warmth and formal structure of the old church chorales, but the only one easily recognized is the ubiquitous “Dies Irae.” From 1991, No. 3 is called “Symphony of Sorrows” (not to be confused with the luxurious, similarly-named work by Gorecki). Its keening “Elegy for Anne Frank” movement is a dark, sparkling gem. Foss got quasi-retrospective with his 1995 Fourth Symphony, called “Window to the Past.” Enjoy its autumnal reflection but don’t expect quotes from earlier Foss.
Probably because Foss’ music springs more from intellect than emotion, there are some passages in the symphonies that seem tentative, even labored, despite the deft conducting of Gil Rose. But take it from me, there is very little here that would rattle the rafters for even the most conservative listener. Skimpy liner notes are all about Foss, not the music, but It’s a release that ought to sell well, especially in Buffalo. Three stars.
– Herman Trotter
Roy Orbison, “The M-G-M Years 19655-1973” (M-G-M/Roy’s Boys/UM, 13 discs). It’s not universally known that Elvis Presley’s real hair color was reddish brown. He dyed it black because he wanted to look like one of his heroes, Roy Orbison. At the end of his life, Orbison was again idolized by fellow rock giants just as he had been by Elvis. Orbison was, arguably, the proudest acclaim of the Traveling Wilburys. Sure they all came together in Dylan’s studio but having an authentic giant from the first rock generation is what, undoubtedly excited the rest of them. What you’ve got here is, arguably, Orbison’s worst period and, inarguably, his unhappiest life period. Great things happened to pop music from 1965 to 1973 but Orbison wasn’t quite on board for most of them. Despite signing for an astonishingly lucrative and promising contract with M-G-M, Orbison suffered terrible person losses in this era. First his wife Claudette died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, then his two sons in an accident in 1968. The money kept rolling in but his old friend from the great Monument records, Bill Justice, was no longer with him. He delivered a lot of music to M-G-M – much of it mediocre and none of it on the same level as the Monument classics. This huge box makes the best case it can for Orbison’s experimentation and ambition in this period. What can never be denied is that hallucinatory American voice. When he’s singing whole discs of music by Don Gibson and Hank Williams, he’s in his element and even when the arrangements are strained, its virtues are admirable. But even though he sold a lot of records in the era, this is not the Orbison music that wears best or ever will. It’s for completists, to be sure, but the earliest Orbison on Monument is the stuff that endures and always will. Three stars.
– Jeff Simon