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Eclectic New York festival may set performing arts trend

A number of points are being made by the new Lincoln Center Festival, which opened last week with a bit of something for just about everyone in the way of performing arts.

The three weeks of programing range from Vietnamese water puppets to an interactive digital piece called Brain Opera, from Japanese art music to a dance-and-video version of Coppelia by the Lyons Opera Ballet of France.

The festival veers from the avant garde to the traditional. One blockbuster event is director Robert Wilson's staging of Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts, perhaps the most original opera written by an American.

Another is John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique performing epic works of Beethoven on period instruments.

Then there's a large-scale outdoor dance piece, Ocean, the final collaboration of the late composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Calling the festival _ whose advertising slogan is "Classic, Contemporary and Beyond" _ eclectic would be one way of putting it. You could also call it unfocused, but the diversity of presentations apparently is one of the points of festival director John Rockwell, a former rock critic, classical music critic and European cultural correspondent with the New York Times.

"From the beginning, this festival was meant to be diverse, and the sense of variety we offer shouldn't have to compete against "the Russian theme' or "the people-in-purple-tights- standing-on-their-heads theme,' " Rockwell said.

Several subthemes stand out. High-tech gizmos play a part in various works, most prominently in scientist-composer Tod Machover's Brain Opera, which combines audience participation and an Internet connection with electronic and computerized musical performance. Ancient Japanese music gets a rare American hearing with performances by Reigakusha, a gagaku ensemble whose musical roots go back 1,200 years, making it the world's oldest existing orchestra music.

To people outside New York, the most important point of the festival may be its venue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Lincoln Center, conceived in the 1950s, was the prototype for a wave of performing arts complexes built around the country, such as Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Increasingly, as their core audiences age and go out less often, these centers are struggling to come up with new programing concepts to attract younger patrons. At Lincoln Center, the change can be seen in the cutting back of its bellwether summertime event, the 30-year-old Mostly Mozart festival, to make room for the new festival. What happens at Lincoln Center tends to have a ripple effect at other performing arts centers.

Along with everything else, the festival is the setting for the annual meeting of the Music Critics Association. Fittingly, the concert Thursday night by the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus was of music by Hector Berlioz, a onetime critic who was better known in his day as a writer than as a composer. Conductor Valery Gergiev led the Russian forces in Berlioz's choral symphony, Romeo et Juliette, composed and premiered in 1839. A highlight was the solo part of Olga Borodina as Juliet, a shimmering mezzo-soprano singing on the joys of first love.