No Progress in Foison Plagiarism Case



Whose music is this?
Photo by Melissa Richard

On June 7, 2001, Philip Kennicott, writing for the Washington Post, reported that the Capitol Hill Chorale had discovered their American premiere of Tristan Foison‘s Requiem Mass had not only not been the work’s first US performance, but wasn’t the Atlanta-based composer’s work at all. An audience member had suspicions that the work was actually a Mass written by the French composer Alfred Desenclos and brought the issue to the attention of the group’s music director, Fred Binkholder. As it turned out, the work had been written by Desenclos in 1963 and had been published by Durand et Fils in 1967.

When NewMusicBox caught up with Binkholder in mid-July, he said that no progress had been made since the discovery and his initial conversations with Foison during which he confronted him with the evidence. “We think that Tristan has gone to Paris for an indefinite period. We don’t really know exactly what’s happened. We haven’t heard from Durand publishing, therefore, well, I think we’re just trying to put this behind us as much as possible.”

Though Foison offered Binkholder a number of explanations as to how his piece could have been mistaken for Desenclos’s, there was no doubt it was a clear cut case of plagiarism. “Once we know what to look for it’s very obvious,” Binkholder said. “We also found the score in other placed with Desenclos’ name on it” dated from the late 1960s, so it was not possible that Foison was as blameless as he claimed.

Foison, having decamped to Paris, finally came clean to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Pierre Ruhe during a phone interview. In an article published in the AJC on July 29, he admitted to the deceit, but said it had been the only time he had passed off another’s work as his own. He attributed his actions to the stress of his career and the need for success.

As far as legal repercussions at this point, Binkholder said, “We’re not really looking to do anything else right now but to say ‘Well, that was interesting.’ Very unfortunate, but yet it’s time to move on as a chorale.” And in a response to a request for a comment from BMG Music Publishing, which now owns Durand, Jennifer Press, associate director of communications wrote only: “We are continuing to review the situation and to discuss it with our litigation counsel.”

A biography of Foison on the Capitol City Opera Company‘s Web site includes a number of prestigious prizes and appointments. Since the case became public, however, all of Foison’s credentials have come into question. Kennicott’s original story found a number of inconsistencies in the composer’s resume and a cultural attachÈ from the French Embassy was not even aware of Foison’s existence. As far as Binkholder’s professional relationship with the composer is concerned, he said he and Foison both taught in Atlanta together, and that he even sang the baritone part for a cantata Foison had written. “And it’s when I received the post of conducting the Capitol Hill Chorale that he offered the use of the Requiem. And that was about it.”

The premiere was to have been a point of pride for the chorale. An article in a community newsletter that promoted the concert reported that “the highlight of the evening will be the Requiem Masse, dedicated to the memory of noted choral conductor Robert Shaw, who died in 1999. While the Requiem Masse has been performed over 20 times in Europe, this will mark its debut in the U.S.” What’s more, Foison himself is quoted saying “Obviously, I am very excited about this—This is the only tribute I know of to Robert Shaw, and to have the Masse performed in America is a wonderful thing. To have the first performance in our nation’s capitol is also very special.”

Though the Chorale has been shaken by the situation, they’re looking to move on. “We’re still quite happy with the performance and also the music itself. I mean it’s a little bit shocking, but then after a while after you get some space from it then it becomes a story that you can relate to other people.” In a way, he said, “it’s brought the group much closer together because we’ve all gone through this situation together.” And he has received nothing but “absolute support” from the Washington community. “I don’t know if anybody would, but nobody has come out and said ‘You get what you pay for.’ or something like that. It’s been very supportive.”

Though he’d like to say the Chorale will never find itself in this situation again, he doubted that was realistic. “It would be wonderful if I could say well, we’ll do extensive background checks on all the composers, but that’s ludicrous. The repertoire itself is so vast that unless you chose a very well known work, then this theoretically could happen. But for me personally, I enjoy doing new works, and so it’s not going to stop me at all from trying to find new work from composer. I feel it’s absolutely essential for an ensemble to do such things.”