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Lukas Foss: Piano Concertos, Elegy for Anne Frank

Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Nakamatsu, and Kasman Deliver Foss

By Jeremy Baskin

staff writer

Piano Concertos No. 1 & No. 2

Elegy for Anne Frank

Composed by Lukas Foss

Pacific Symphony Orchestra

Carl St.Clair, conductor

Harmonia Mundi Records

The United States is a country so young that instead of having cultural history and traditions pouring out of its ears, elements of culture that are produced in this land are often overemphasized. Who can really place any blame, when one considers the dearth of musical culture not much more than campfire songs that came out of 18th-century America at the same time that Mozart was composing the Jupiter symphony?

Thus, one sees American classical music too often defined narrowly in terms of a couple of key contributors -- Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, maybe Charles Ives and Samuel Barber, too. The mentality may be that if we put all our eggs in one or two baskets, we can rival the Mozarts, Ravels, Wagners, Beethovens, and dozens of other masters that Europe throws our way.

Such narrow-minded thinking too often leaves other inspired American composers in the cold. Lukas Foss, a composer worthy of Aaron Copland’s fame and influence, minus a blockbuster like Appalachian Spring to provide it, certainly falls into that category of somewhat neglected American composers.

A recent CD of his piano concertos featuring pianists Jon Nakamatsu and Yakov Kasman, with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra under Carl St. Clair, should hopefully combat Foss’s anonymity to the general public. His first piano concerto, written at age 17 as a clarinet concerto and revised four years later to its present form, is a youthful piece that makes use of the piano as both a percussive instrument and a vehicle for emotions.

The clarinet is still very present in this piece, but is used only to stick its head out of the orchestra every now and then, and the emphasis is on the piano. Nakamatsu, winner of the gold medal at the 1997 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, plays impeccably, providing the crystal clear technique that is needed to bring Foss’s music to life.

At the end of the second movement, a romantic andante, the cadenza mixes carefully placed chords from the piano with a moto perpetuo-like pattern, which is interrupted by a pianissimo trumpet. One is reminded of the famous passage in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, where pianissimo strings emerge from a monstrous brass chord, the ultimate in effective textural changes. This kind of quick change typifies all of Foss’s music on this CD. A sole complaint for this piece is that it is too listenable, that the musical resolutions are a bit too obvious, but one cannot expect deep introspection from a 17-year old composer.

Eleven years later in his life, having moved on from his studies with Paul Hindemith at Yale University, Foss decided to write another piano concerto. In the liner notes, the composer writes that this piece is modeled after Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. If having a tutti in excess of three minutes qualifies as modeling oneself after Beethoven, then maybe Foss achieved his goal, but Foss’s second piano concerto stands well more than 143 years and one ocean away from the Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.

The 15-minute first movement is peppered with cute rhythms and subtly agitating tremolos on the timpani, as the piano has an even bigger range of emotions demanded on it than in the first concerto. The second movement again opens up with the clarinet, this time as a clarinet duet.

Much of the movement involves a piano cadenza with preciously chosen chords executed with grace by the soloist, Yakov Kasman, who won the slver medal at the 1997 Van Cliburn competition. The technically exciting third movement lacked an absolute command and facility on the part of the piano soloist but was nevertheless performed effectively.

Throughout the two concertos, the Pacific Symphony Orchestra provided adequate accompanying, but in world-premiere recordings, one can get away with merely reading the notes and playing them for more or less what they’re worth. The same, of course, goes for the soloists. This caveat should not, however, underscore the greatness that these works are being recorded, because they absolutely deserve to be recorded.

Ultimately, though, context is required to fully assess the merit of musical recordings. In this case, the context is simply that the PSO and these pianists would not be able to release an album of Brahms’ piano concertos, since the music world would not care; this orchestra and these soloists would most probably not hold a candle to the great recordings currently available on the market from premier European and North American orchestras.

The CD finishes with Foss’s Elegy for Anne Frank, written in 1989, performed in both its narrated version, with excerpts from the Diary of Anne Frank, and without the narration. The narration, provided by Eliza Foss, an actress and daughter of Lukas Foss, is professional, but it is a kind of professionalism that verges on aloofness, the opposite emotion than the desired one of utter involvement.

Only the elder Foss, at the piano for this piece, achieves the proper connection with both his music and the spirit of young Anne Frank. The orchestra members might have been playing scales, sight-reading John Philip Sousa marches, or reading Cosmopolitan magazine, for their seeming level of understanding of the music probably bordered on their actual understanding of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Both the brass and the strings could have sounded more sinister and less nonchalant.

The pathos of the music came through nonetheless better in the version without narration. Musical interruptions, such as changes of moods within the six-minute work, prove to be much more effective when not diluted with interruptions by a spoken human voice. Foss seems to have the piano play the role of the young girl hiding in a townhouse in Amsterdam. The brass interjections late into the work can be seen as the people who take Anne off to her death at the end of the piece. In all, the Elegy for Anne Frank proves to be a powerful musical vignette and a fitting end to the album.