Fine Choices Abound at Lincoln Center Festival

The new summer gala aims to be New York's most important and eclectic arts series, wooing tourists and locals alike

Launching a world-class summer arts festival is a huge challenge. Lean too much toward high culture, and you'll lose audiences who want the equivalent of beach-blanket reading. Lean too much toward low culture, and folks might simply choose a Hollywood blockbuster at their local multiplex.

Lincoln Center usually struck a good balance in its aptly named Serious Fun! annual festival, and expectations are high for the Lincoln Center Festival 96 that has replaced it. The new event is now wooing New Yorkers and tourists in the hope of establishing itself as New York's most important and eclectic arts series.

Not content with one or two attractions per day, the festival asks its audience to choose among as many as half-a-dozen performances scattered through each afternoon and evening. Facing this task on opening night in late July, I reluctantly bypassed a chamber-music recital, a ballet performance, a choral evening, and a Vietnamese puppet show, instead dropping in on the Kirov Orchestra and Choir from Moscow.

What piqued my curiosity was the question of how a program of Russian music from the 1930s and '50s would illustrate the innovative spirit of this forward-looking festival. The answer came in a program note by festival director John Rockwell, who points out that repressed dissident music has been in vogue since the fall of the Soviet Union, casting an unwarranted shadow over great works by composers who worked within the strictures of government control.

This is an interesting idea, and to support it Valery Gergiev vigorously conducted Shostakovich's moody 11th Symphony and Prokofiev's expansive Cantata for the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution, proving the proposition that an evening of Stalinist music could be an auspicious starting point for a thoroughly modernistic festival.

Visiting a more future-oriented point on the festival's spectrum, I had my next musical experience at the "Hyperstring Trilogy," composed by Tod Machover and performed on "hyperinstruments" he invented himself. These are ordinary members of the string family hooked up to computerized gizmos, which alter their sounds according to the movements of the player's wrist, the exact pressure and placement of the bow, and other such variables.

The pieces all explored unusual sonic territory in atmospheric and sometimes exciting ways, but the high point of the evening came when the hypercello player had to interrupt his performance for technical reasons - not because something went wrong with the complicated bank of computers behind him, but because the plain old A-string on his instrument snapped.

Emerging from behind the computers, Machover clapped his hand to his forehead and said, "That's the one thing we didn't think of!" It was an amusing moment in an enjoyable concert.

More unprecedented music was heard in "Ocean," choreographed by the brilliant Merce Cunningham and billed as his last collaboration with the late John Cage, often regarded as this century's most revolutionary composer.

Cage believed in bypassing the ego when creating art, and here he bypassed his ego so completely that two other people actually wrote the score - Andrew Culver and David Tudor, who contributed the orchestral and electronic components, respectively.

The musicians surrounded the audience and the audience surrounded Cunningham's dancers in the outdoor Damrosch Park theater, making for a session of exquisitely conceived media mixing.

Providing a festival within the festival, Ireland's respected Gate Theatre is presenting all 19 of Samuel Beckett's stage works, from his full-scale plays to small gems like "Come and Go," a piece so minimalistic that it's over almost before it begins. The series commenced with "Waiting for Godot," a key modernist work that still elicits laughs, tears, and chills. Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy played the inimitable Vladimir and Estragon under the eloquent directing of former Beckett associate Walter Asmus.

No item on the program enticed me more than Robert Wilson's new production of "Four Saints in Three Acts," the 1934 opera by composer Virgil Thomson and the glorious writer Gertrude Stein, who never made a more convincing case for her lifelong belief that poetry is made of words, not ideas.

Wilson shares this conviction - he believes that theater is made of sights and sounds, not stories and characters - and he also shares Stein's endless sense of playfulness and fun.

A lot more than four saints filled the New York State Theater stage during what may or may not have been three acts, and the audience greeted the opera's delightful confusions with enthusiastic applause at the end of its too-brief 90 minutes. Dennis Russell Davies did a fine job of conducting Thomson's score, which ranges from folklike melodies to snippets of "America the Beautiful" and allusions to the classical repertoire.

Wilson's elegant staging combined his trademarked slow-motion gestures with colorful costumes and a touch of gymnastics as a bonus. A splendid time was had by all.

The festival continues through Aug. 11, when it closes with Beckett's classic 'Endgame' and a tribute to violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Other coming events include performances by the Alvin Ailey dance troupe and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis's baton; a play by London's Theatre de Complicite; and concerts by the New York Philharmonic.

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