New York's festival seen as a worthy test of its wings. Reduction of cynicism could develop over time

A favorite critical sport this month, at least among music writers here, has been taking potshots at the First New York International Festival of the Arts, which wrapped up its four-week array of 350 events a few days ago. Instead of seeing this festival as a potentially valuable test of its wings, critics have tended to carp at or condemn it for not taking full flight on its first outing.

It was perhaps inevitable that anyone trying to create an arts extravaganza in so arts-rich a city as New York was asking for trouble. But this did not daunt Martin Segal, an investment banker who turned arts mogul by way of Lincoln Center.

In retrospect, it must be said that this year's theme - the arts of the 20th century - was too broad. In terms of the music, the festival's effort to be all things to all people made for a dilution of effect.

But any beginning for an event of this magnitude is bound to be awkward. And we must recognize that the festival did display a wide cross section of performances that likely would not have been seen here otherwise. In fact, I can think of no concert among the 18 I attended that would have occurred had the festival not brought it.

Thanks to this festival, New York heard the 20-year-old London Sinfonietta for the first time, and it was treated to one of the rare visits by the vocal group Electric Phoenix, also from London.

It also heard Pierre Boulez's Ensemble Intercontemporain from Paris, and the United States debuts of five winners of major competitions (discussed in these pages last Thursday).

How sad, therefore, that the general reaction of music critics has been so determinedly fault-finding in an event that just might become an important aspect of New York life. The festival could serve as an artistically revitalizing biennial event for audiences fed up with the aura of rote that predominates at our principal musical institutions.

No festival is 100 percent triumphant, and I can't truthfully say I was unexpectedly thrilled by any event except the Pl'acido Domingo Central Park concert that closed the festival. But that event was an impressive demonstration of star power and audience rapport of the highest order. Whether Domingo was singing opera, operetta, zarzuela, mariachi serenades, or Broadway hits, he was in top form. With him on the program were opera soprano Rosario Andrade, pop stars Gloria Estefan and Linda Ronstadt, and the American Symphony Orchestra, led by Eugene Kohn. There was also a splendid fire-works display. It was an ideal summer's night program, ideally performed.

Among other highlights I would cite were the two St. Louis Symphony programs, featuring two of the five festival-commissioned compositions - Joseph Schwantner's curiously unpersuasive Concerto for Piano (eloquently performed by Emanuel Ax) and Jacob Druckman's ebullient ``Quickening Pulse.'' The St. Louis is that rare orchestra where one senses the musicians' love of performing and of making memorable music under a caring music director. This, indeed, is something that has become all too rare for New York audiences.

The dazzlingly gifted American cellist Carter Brey offered a recital in a sparsely filled Town Hall that also included a festival commission, David Diamond's Second Cello Sonata, a skillfully conceived, often engagingly executed showcase for the instrument. The two British groups made contrary showings here. On the one hand, the remarkable vocal group Electric Phoenix offered a program that reached across many current musical trends and was executed with the group's accustomed virtuosic skill. The London Sinfonietta made a dispiriting debut with a program that should have been right up its alley. Perhaps conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen's preoccupation with effusive hand gestures confused them. Perhaps Paul Crossley's chilly, steely apporoach to the piano set too harsh a model. For whatever reason, the two most anticipated works on the first program - Janacek's ``Concertino for Piano and Chamber Ensemble'' and Berg's Chamber Concerto, received unsatisfactory accounts.

I came into this festival wondering if it really was something New York needed. I came out of it convinced that it was: We hear so many groups and soloists throughout the year, packaged and merchandised as to ensure maximum box office returns.

This attitude is killing off music. The festival needs to be allowed to gain the necessary confidence to tread the line between box office awareness and artistic daring, something it did not really manage in music this first time around. It needs to attract both the idealists and the populists on both sides of the footlights and, in so doing, to help in wearing down the cynicism that has taken hold of so much of the New York arts scene. This would be a major service to the city.

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