Plucky 'Artichoke'; jubilant Joel; phalanx of folkies; new symphony

Like its title, ''Artichoke'' (by Joanna M. Glass) is a prickly play with a soft heart. To get to the heart you have to munch through quirky plot twists, plain country folk that spew out some pretty highfalutin language, and confrontation more appropriate for an encounter group tha a Canadian farm. But the munching is part of the fun.

The play asks: Can a burned-out English professor from London find sanctuary on the Saskatchewan plains with a farm woman (his foster sister and childhood soulmate) who has an eccentric daughter and a husband who has slept in the smokehouse for 14 years? The answer is predictable - and surprising.

What's predictable is the conflict between brains and brawn, and the inexorable attraction between the mother, Margaret, and the teacher, Gibson. What's surprising is how they handle the attraction, and the family's reaction to it. It's all quixotic and endearing - and very funny.

Nora Hussey's direction enhances the oddities of the script: The actors deliver their too-literate lines with a touch of camp that makes them fit. Miss Hussey is best at bringing out the small signals of romance.

One of the most delightful characters I've seen recently is the daughter, Lily Agnes. Intoning lines like ''I am an island of calm in a turbulent sea,'' this excitable teen-ager requires a hat to keep her thoughts from rushing out. Sally Campbell does her just right.

Lisa Foley is fine (though a tad youw-o the both stalwart and swooning Margaret. But aside from Alden Jackson, who as Gramps has a lovely serenity and naturalness, all the actors are too young. Hugh d'Autremont conveys a nice priggishness as Gibson. William Casewell as the father has some nice moments - but sounds as if he's trying to do an imitation of Jud in ''Oklahoma.'' Any weaknesses in the individual actors are more than made up for in the splendid work they do together.

In spite of all the cumbersome leaves of strange dialogue and odd characters, the center of ''Artichoke'' is warm and true, with an undergirding of enduring love. When Walter talks about the land, you also sense he feels the same way about his wife: ''It behaves for me . . .. And if it don't, I let it lie fallow for a season. Then it comes back and gives me 30 bushels to the acre.'' (Boston Theater Club, at the Nucleo Eclettico through May 5.) - C. F.

Billy Joel

The current debate over balancing high-tech and high-touch was evident in the Billy Joel concert at Boston Garden last week. His adoring audience got plenty of both.

His was a concert of polished technical effects, filled with cricket sounds, helycoptez-O - rain whistle. Pencil-thin blue and green spotlights arced over the performers while lights flashed on certain beats.

It was a very masculine show, with a veritable army of men scurrying around providing for Joel's every need: a horn team, a pair of drummers, and a clump of backup singers. Nary a woman in sight. Many of his songs are bitter - about not trusting women. ''It's My Life'' was one of these.

But at the same time, this is the man who wrote and sang one of the most honest, enlightened love song of the '70s, ''Just the Way You Are.'' It was a real sight to see him singing quietly, surrounded by this heavy-metal forest. He also spent time shaking hands and making sure people tucked into odd corners were able to see him. Quite high-touch.

This paradox aside, it was a good - if overwhelmingly loud - show. He and his crew were nonstop energy and filled with high jinks. He sang everything the crowd wanted to hear: ''Piano Man,'' ''Innocent Man,'' ''Uptown Girl,'' and many more. Particularly spectacular was ''Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,'' with blissful harmony on the sustained last note. - C. F.

Acoustic Music Festival

While Billy Joel and many others head for synth-pop, with electronic gadgetry at the fore, another segment of musicians is getting back to guitar strings.

Boston is one of the hotbeds of the ''New Acoustic Music'' movement - as was plainly evident last weekend when enthusiasts jammed Sanders Theatre in Cambridge for the Fourth Annual Acoustic Music Festival.

What they heard was a hodgepodge of sounds - everything from bluegrass to Irish folk to progressive country. Perhaps the highlight of the festival was the fascinating mix of acoustic pianist Barbara Higbie and gospel singer Teresa Trull. While Miss Higbie laid a soothing, enchanting piano backdrop, Miss Trull danced about the stage, her arms often flung wide and her voice rolling, reaching, and pouring off the stage with unrelenting energy and power: The duo embraced the audience in their music.

But folk/acoustic fans don't just flock to festivals for the music, they come for the brotherhood. Picture these scenes from the encore of Friday night's performance: Practically all the performers out on stage (four violins, three guitars, an electric dulcimer, a banjo) and a torrent of strings letting loose on a bluegrass instrumental - with Teresa Trull leading ''Amazing Grace'' in a hall swaying as the crowd sang along.

If you missed it, not to worry. WERS (88.9 FM) plays acoustic daily from 6 to 11 a.m., and the area is graced by many fine folk/acoustic music houses, including Passim's and the Nameless Coffeehouse in Cambridge and Wood and Strings in Belmont.

- David Wilck

New symphony at BSO

Recently, the Boston Symphony Orchestra celebrated its centennial with a commissioned work that thundered. Too bad the rest of their program only yawned.

The opening movement of John Harbison's Symphony No. 1, inspired by a dream he had, opens with a series of forgelike chords that shake the timbers. What follows certainly captures the disjointed quality of dreams, with its suddenly shifting focus from one group of instruments to another. After a short scherzo, the third movement steadily builds from a quiet tension set up by woodwinds and strings to a relentless heaving of the full orchestra in dissonances and textures reminiscent of Stravinsky. In the finale, the steely character of the work as a whole carries the piece to an impassioned climax.

The Nicolai overture that opened the program and the Elgar Violin Concerto that closed it seemed almost out of place bookending a work of such magnitude. Both pieces were sprinkled with sloppy entrances and ill-tuned chords. And Joseph Silverstein's violin playing, while graceful and accurate, lacked power and projection.

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