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A unique legacy, a unique man

Foss2Buffalo can rejoice in having had such a close connection to Lukas Foss, the legendary figure in American music who died Sunday at 86. He was the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's music director from 1963 to 1970. By filling the BPO's programs with audacious, often bewildering new music, he practically singlehandedly created a new identity for our town -- as a world-renowned center for the avant-garde.

At left is a picture I like of Foss as a young man. He was 39 when he came to Buffalo. Whether you appreciated his innovations or not, there is no denying the force of his personality, miraculously balanced by an incredible charm.

I got to interview Foss in 2003, when he came to Buffalo for a weeklong celebration of his music. I called him at his home a couple of weeks before he got here, and we talked for about an hour. The occasion stands out especially in my mind because, preparing for it, I pulled an all-nighter. I cannot remember any other time I did that -- after college, I mean.

So there I was, up all night, listening to Foss' music reading up on him, planning what to ask him. In the morning, I got dressed, went into the office and called him. Sometimes phone interviews rattle me, at least until you get things rolling. I have to say, that one never did! No. 1, I was too tired to be rattled. No. 2, Foss was one of the nicest men I had ever talked to. I don't think anyone could be nervous talking to him. You did not have that option.

His wife answered the phone, I remember, and then she was running out the door to go somewhere, and Foss had to break off our conversation to ask her, "How long are you going to be gone?"

Then after she left another phone kept ringing. And Foss kept having to break to answer it. The calls were for his wife and I kept hearing him say, apologetically, "She's not here." There was one time when the phone rang and it was nobody. "Hello?" Foss said. Then, patiently: "Hello? Hello? Hello?"

Here is another thing that was fun. Foss had a great memory for music, and I had heard that he used to sing this famous sextet from "The Marriage of Figaro," taking all the parts. Imagine hearing someone do that! I asked him if it was true that he could, and he sort of modestly admitted that it was.

"When was the last time you ran through that?" I asked him. That was how loopy I was for lack of sleep.

Foss said: "What?" I guess he wasn't sure he heard me right. So I just repeated it, the same way I had asked it the first time. It's on the tape and everything. "When was the last time you ran through that?" I asked.

There was this brief silence and then Foss burst into this big laugh. He said he could not remember when he had. I think that's what he said. I don't really remember. All I remember is that laugh.

Because that was when I thought: I love this man! As everybody did, it seems. He just had that kind of personality.

Here is one story that could not fit in the tribute I put together for The News. I was talking with Irene Haupt, the wife of longtime BPO concertmaster Charles Haupt. She told me of a time she went to Toronto with her husband and Foss, for a concert at a university. And Foss was driving.

While they were on the highway, Irene Haupt says, Foss spotted their destination some distance from the road.

"Lukas said, 'Look, the university is way over there!' And he just went off the Thruway and drove over the fields toward it," she said. "That's the kind of guy he was. He was just a huge amount of fun."

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

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