Where mansions become concert halls. Elegant musicmaking finds a harmonious setting in Newport's historic homes

IT is fitting that one of this country's unique music festivals takes place annually in an equally unique setting - the fabled summer mansions lining this resort town's Bellevue Avenue, royal reminders of an earlier era's super-rich denizens. The Newport Music Festival has always taken its cue from the splendid ballrooms and halls within these historic dwellings. On the basis of the seven concerts I heard last weekend in such homes as the Breakers, the Astors' Beechwood, Belcourt Castle, and Rosecliff, it must be said that this is one of the most consistent festivals in matters of programming and execution that I have yet encountered.

Director Mark Malkovich, during his 13 years as head of the festival, has always had his eye on new talent, unusual repertoire, and something catchy in terms of a debut artist or two. This year, his curio was the North American debut of an immensely gifted 10-year-old violin prodigy, Stefan Milenkovic. Pianist Michel Dalberto also made his North American recital debut.

The mansions make remarkable concert halls - for the most part acoustically satisfying and well proportioned - maintaining an intimate contact between temporary stage and audience. The framework is for naught, however, if the music and the musicmaking are not up to caliber.

The programming was a mix of familiar, rediscovered, and little-known selections by major and lesser composers. For instance, the closing of a Sunday evening program included Luigi Bassi's ``Concert Fantasia for Clarinet and Piano on Motives from Verdi's `Rigoletto''' (known to virtuoso clarinetists but not to a general public), Mahler's ``Songs of a Wayfarer'' (better known in its orchestral version), and Brahms's ``Variations on a Theme by Paganini,'' Book II.

A Saturday evening concert attempted, in the splendor of Rosecliff (where much of ``The Great Gatsby'' was filmed), to re-create a soiree in Rossini's Paris home, where composers and musicians gathered to share works and talents with each other.

One of the most refreshing program halves introduced me to song composer Richard Hundley, now in his third season as composer in residence. He is an impassioned lyricist, who loves to caress the words with beguiling melody. Singers clearly love to sing these songs. (Though tricky, they're a balm for weary throats and weary ears!) One of the premi`eres of the concert was ``Beverly,'' commissioned as an anniversary present by Martin Shanks for his wife. The mix of popular idiom, corn, and sheer affection blended into an irresistibly sentimental whole and was sweetly performed by the composer, soprano Jeannie Ommerl'e, and mezzo-soprano Melanie Sonnenberg.

It's impossible to cite every artist, but several stand out vividly. I was thrilled by clarinetist Paul Meyer's offerings - be it the dazzling performance of Weber's ``Grand Duo Concertant'' for clarinet and piano, or his remarkably sensitive and theatrical account of Bassi's ``Rigoletto'' fantasia. He also was the eloquent clarinetist in the Mozart aria ``Parto, Parto'' from ``La Clemenza di Tito,'' with Mimi Lerner the mezzo and Fran,cois-Ren'e Duchable at the piano.

On the same program, Miss Lerner gave a rich and absorbing account of the Mahler ``Wayfarer'' songs. Earlier that Saturday, Mr. Dalberto revealed a remarkably rich color palette and the soul of a true keyboard poet in his reading of Schubert's ``Drei Kalvierst"ucke'' (D. 946).

When Master Milenkovic performed, I had to keep reminding myself that he was only 10 years old. He has the tone of a seasoned professional, the concentration of a mature artist, and the personality of a true showman. One waits with anticipation to see just how he develops over the next decade. Certainly the basics are already vividly in place, and with his mother as accompanist, it seems probable that he will mature gracefully under a vigilant artist/parent's eye.

Mr. Duchable, who was involved in five of the programs I attended, was surely the hero of the festival. As an accompanist, he established an easy rapport with both Mr. Meyer and Miss Lerner; as a four-hand partner he complemented Dalberto; he garnered a roar of approval for his Liszt Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody; and he proved his mastery of the sonorities and colors of his instrument in the Brahms Paganini Variations.

Violinist Rafael Oleg, who was the first Frenchman to win the Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medal last year, proved eloquent in Smetana's ``From My Homeland.'' The blend of voices in the San Francisco Chamber Singers made so much of their work enjoyable. The Swedish Falu Wind Quintet offered an enchanting program of less-than-familiar music played with elegance and deep affection. Vocal quartets with Beverly Hoch, Juliana Gondek, Mimi Lerner, Glenn Siebert, and Charles Pailthorp were most gratifying to the ear.

Next year will be the 20th season - an important landmark for a festival that Newport folk seem very happy to call their own and that offers any music lover a rich and varied bill of fare. The Newport Music Festival ends Sunday.

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