Lukas Foss, Baroque Variations

by Richard Wilson

Written for the concert American Variations: Perle at 100, performed on May 29, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born August 15, 1922, in Berlin
Died February 1, 2009, in New York City
Composed in 1967
Premiered July 7, 1967, in Chicago by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa
Performance Time: Approximately 25 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 recorder, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 soprano saxophone, 1 bassoon, 3 French horns, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (vibraphone, cymbals, chimes, gong, xylophone, triangle, bass drum), 1 celesta, 1 electric piano, 1 electric organ, 1 harpsichord, 1 electric guitar, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

A decade before John Cage hit on subtraction as a compositional device, Lukas Foss was busy erasing notes from a Handel piece to create the first movement of Baroque Variations. The unsuspecting listener might think he or she is confronted by an orchestral malfunction. Perhaps players have ingested Ambien and are dozing off only to wake up suddenly, having lost their place. An atmosphere of gentle confusion prevails.

The second movement, based on a harpsichord sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, appears to have difficulty getting into motion. Once it does, the music fades in and out, sometimes alarmingly, coming at different and conflicting speeds.

J.S. Bach provides material for the final movement of this phantasmagoria. His E-major solo violin Partita is subjected to a series of interruptions, often comic, that suggest zoo animals on the loose, right-hand-only piano practice, stuck vinyl records, chaos suddenly broken off then turned back on. Finally: an organ appearing out of nowhere battling out-of-control percussion.

In his long and varied compositional career, Lukas Foss moved in and out of tonality, of neo-classicism, of improvisation, and of electronics. He was constantly exploring and experimenting. In Baroque Variations he created an endearing icon of Dream-state Modernism.

Richard Wilson is ASO’s Composer in Residence and the Mary Conover Mellon Professor of Music at Vassar College.