New York — The exciting taste of How It Once Was. That was the overriding impression left by a recent splendid, polished Carnegie Hall concert by the Eastman Philharmonia.
How It Once Was, that is, when American music was enjoying what can be called its ''golden age'' - a time when concert programs like this one were the rule, rather than today's sporadic and tantalizing exceptions.
Music from this ''golden age,'' by Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and Walter Piston, was given golden-brown performances by conductor David Effron and the orchestra of the music school most known for American music at its finest. To this were added two brand-new works.
Clearly, the Philharmonia's concert (part of a tour including Washington; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; and Rochester, N.Y.) was to a large extent a celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday and the Eastman School's commissioning of an extended work in his memory. But this exemplary program gave rise to another remembrance: that the treasures of American music have a lot to offer allm audiences, if simply given sufficient hearing - and are no more second-class citizens than the people Dr. King labored for.
The masterly Symphony No. 4, by Walter Piston, is a prime example and was certainly the centerpiece of the evening, from musical and performance standpoints. Awarded the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, this work has suffered inexcusable neglect in the concert world over the years. There are those, of course, who would deny that music as ''art'' can move and engage audiences. But I have yet to meet anyone truly susceptible to what we call ''feelings'' who hasn't been won over by this brilliant, positive work. David Effron led the Philharmonia in a spotless, thoroughgoing performance that would leave a good many ''ranking'' orchestras behind. Piston's Fourth epitomizes so much of what American music at its best is like. It is a crime that this work is not in every orchestra's standard repertoire.
The new work by Joseph Schwantner, ''New Morning for the World (. . . Daybreak of Freedom . . .),'' commissioned for these concerts and featuring a narration of texts by the Rev. Dr. King, packed a surprise in its degree of accessibility - the most of any of his works to date. Schwantner's inevitable poetic sensibility was there, but this time competing with very little in the way of challenging sonoroties, and making, on the whole, for a highly expressive , sensitive piece.
The repetitive, rhetorical side of Schwantner was also present, however, and these passages in his music consistently border on the tasteless. This perhaps gives his music some of its interest, as one listens to how he manages to turn something insipid into a musically propulsive gesture. But this works less well in his recent music, which is more concerned with heartfelt, accessible expressions than with ''exciting'' sounds, and one hopes he will begin to drop some of his mannerisms in favor of where his superb talent will lead him in the future.
Since Willie Stargell, the retired baseball star who read the King texts, was the ''draw,'' something should probably be said of his performance as well. His actual part in the proceedings turned out to be very little of the total, but what he was given - at first, short snippets as triggers for extended orchestral declamations, later slightly longer passages - he read clearly, with a confidence in the emotional charge embedded in the words themselves.
Few in the hall were unmoved. What failed to happen in Schwantner's piece, though, was for the speaker and the orchestra to take off together, in fugue to one another. So much of the attractive music, even when bereft of narration, sounded dependent for meaning on a foreground text that wasn't there.
George Walker's ''An Eastman Overture,'' the other commissioned work, was the only disappointment of the evening. While sensing every possible bit of goodwill on the part of the composer, one waited until the end of the composition for things to get started, for the ideas to take flight, and they simply never did.
The Philharmonia met the challenge of a danceless concert performance of Copland's ''Appalachian Spring'' with an expansive, expressive performance that need take a back seat to no one's. The same can be said of the huge string section's rendering of Samuel Barber's by-now classic ''Adagio for Strings.'' Many an orchestra has come to grief over those treacherous stratospheric chords that bristle with intonation hazards.
Maestro Effron has molded quite a fine ensemble, and the cause of American music, if such programming is to continue, can only breathe an ardent thank-you.