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`Horizons '86': new music with a theatrical touch

The New York Philharmonic does more than its share for the cause of contemporary music -- particularly when it comes to the Horizons festival concerts. Horizons '86 is titled ``Music as Theater.'' Artistic director Jacob Druckman has chosen 22 works by 18 composers from 10 countries. Many of the pieces require theatrical devices for their performance. Others are theatrical in mood; still others require the players to interact histrionically as well as musically.

The first two programs offered an entertaining compendium of styles and genres. The music of Gy"orgy Ligeti comprised the first program -- scenes and interludes from his opera ``Le Grand Macabre'' (American premi`ere) and ``Aventures''/''Nouvelles Aventures'' for three singers and seven instrumentalists. The second program included works by Conlon Nancarrow, Poul Ruders, Mauricio Kagel, Betty Olivero, and Morton Gould.

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The Ligeti program provided an electrifying opening for the series. The ``Grand Macabre'' music cries out for full staging, but even in the concert presentation one sensed what a wonderfully irreverent romp this wildly buffo work must be on a stage.

``Aventures''/''Nouvelles Aventures'' involves three singers who use a wordless language to communicate on a vocal line. In the tiny orchestra, some of the percussion effects include tearing paper and dropping plates. Written in the mid-'60s, it is a brilliant synthesis of then-new trends in music, of a fertile musical imagination, and of a strong dramatic/theatric sensibility. This results in a piece that is at once atonal, communicative, and finally gripping.

There were dazzling performances from soprano Karen Beardsley, baritone John Brandstetter, and mezzo Joyce Castle, under the cohesive and witty stage direction of Ian Strasfogel. Zolt'an Pesk'o conducted both Ligeti works with a vivid feel for the humor, the tonal colorations, and the drama of the music.

The second program got off to a splendid start with Nancarrow's jaunty ``Piece No. 1 for Chamber Orchestra,'' which owes a debt to jazz-band and dance-hall combos. It also boasted the US premi`ere of Ruders's ``Corpus cum Figuris,'' a slightly too-long study in motor-rhythmic patterns that was, at all points, deftly orchestrated.

Then there was Betty Olivero's ``Cantes amargos'' a relentlessly unappealing, even unsingable work, with Kimball Wheeler given the unhappy task of plowing through Olivero's foolishly high-, and also low-, lying vocal line.

Morton Gould's ``Tap Dance Concerto (No. 2)'' would have fared better had Fred Strickler toned down his over-enthusiastic body language, which distracted from the eloquent footwork that is, after all, the solo instrument of the concerto. Another work involving foot noises, Kagel's ``Pas de Cinq,'' sounded interesting in description, but proved pretentious in performance. The program was impressively conducted by composer Oliver Knussen, who seems just as comfortable with a baton in hand as with a pen.

Four more concerts remain in the series at Avery Fisher Hall: Friday, May 30, and Monday-Wednesday, June 2-4. As always, Mr. Druckman has seen to it that all the Horizons festivals have been stimulating, perhaps even controversial.

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