Lukas Foss

Classical composer Lukas Foss, who was known for his use of varied styles and his prolific portfolio, died Sunday. He was 86. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Lukas Foss, the polyglot American composer, conductor and pianist who directed half a dozen Ojai Music Festivals, led marathon concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as head of composition at UCLA, has died. He was 86.

Foss died Sunday at his home in New York, according to his wife, Cornelia Foss. No cause of death was given, but Foss was known to have had Parkinson's disease.

American composer Aaron Copland once called Foss' works "among the most original and stimulating compositions in American music."

Foss wrote more than 100 works, passing through three stylistic periods, from tonal, neoclassical writing through experimentation with 12-tone, electronic, chance and other techniques, then returning to complex but more listener-friendly works.

His output includes four symphonies, three string quartets and many choral, chamber, orchestral and stage pieces, embodying almost every style available to a classical composer.

His best-known works are "Time Cycle" (songs with orchestra after texts by W. H. Auden, A. E. Housman, Franz Kafka and Friedrich Nietzsche); "Baroque Variations" for orchestra (deconstruction of Bach, Handel and D. Scarlatti); "Echoi" (for four instruments); two operas, "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (after Mark Twain) and "Griffelkin"; Symphony No. 3 ("Symphony of Sorrows); and "Renaissance Concerto" for flute and orchestra.

"The funny thing is that after all these works, I still don't have a recipe for composing," Foss told the New York Times in 1997.

"I always wonder where the notes are going to come from, and I still beat my head against the wall, as I'm doing now with the string quartet I've just started. It's always a kind of torture at first, until suddenly the door opens, and you get ideas, and you know what you want to do and how you want to do it. Then it's a piece of cake, but until it happens it's quite difficult."

Foss and his impressive portfolio were often overshadowed by his friend and colleague Leonard Bernstein.

"People would always talk about Lukas in relationship to Lenny, and that made people overlook what he was and is, which is a much more disciplined composer," composer William Bolcom told the Detroit Free Press in 2000.

"Lukas has been almost cursed by his ability to do so many different things so well," Bolcom said.

The son of a philosophy professor and a painter, Foss was born Lukas Fuchs in Berlin in 1922. His birth date is usually given as Aug. 15, but the composer wasn't so sure.

"I have no birth certificate," he told the New York Times in 1997. "I have a passport, but the birth date on it was the result of guesswork."

Foss' family fled the Nazis when he was a teenager. He studied music at the Lycee Pasteur in Paris from 1932 to '37 and then at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia from '37 to '39, studying piano with Isabelle Vengerova, who also taught Bernstein; conducting with Fritz Reiner; and composing with Rosario Scalero and Randall Thompson.

In addition to Bernstein, Foss' classmates included composers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti. Foss was also part of the first class of pre-professional students at what was then Berkshire Music Center.

Although he began composing at 7, Foss' first major success came at 22 with "The Prairie," a cantata based on Carl Sandburg's poem, which won the 1944 New York Music Critics' Circle Award. The piece was heavily influenced by the populist style of Copland.

"I had fallen in love with America because of people like Aaron," said Foss, who became a U.S. citizen in 1942.

Foss succeeded Schoenberg at UCLA in 1953 and taught there for 10 years. He also led the Ojai Music Festivals from 1961 to 1964, '79 to '80 and again in '81.

At Ojai, which underwent a number of financial difficulties, Foss was known as "a stylistic eclectic . . . a genial podium personality, a knowing technician, an imaginative program-builder and a facile pianist," according to former Los Angeles Times music critic Martin Bernheimer.