After last night's world premiere of "The River Merchant's Wife" at the Corcoran Gallery, there can be little doubt that composer Lawrence Willingham is well on his way to becoming one of America's most beautiful new voices in dramatic music. Willingham's love of the human voice was present in every note that underlined the text by Ezra Pound, with passages that remained stylistically eclectic until the rhapsodic last movement. There, in spite of melodic echoes of Barber and Pasatieri, the vocal texture was distinctive, accessible and unmistakably new. p

Much of the first movement recalled the works of Crumb, but without their total disaffection for the meaning of words. The scoring for the chamber ensemble was less successful than the vocal writing, often falling into that consert chic sound that makes so many recent works undistinguishable. But make no mistake about it, this was an exciting and very successful premiere by the Contemporary Music Forum featuring soprano Marilyn Boyd DeReggi.

Two Washington premieres were fun. A "Summer Trio" by Ole Buch erred on the side of brevity, its development of repeated patterns lacking the courage of pieces by Glass or Reich. A bizarre dramatic work by Alcids Lanza called "Penetrations VII" closed the program, enveloping the Corcoran's marble atrium in darkness as an eerie electronic tape soared over the audience. Soon the soprano's desperate humming was heard as she entered the audience from behind and climbed through the playing space holding a battered doll. Unfortunately the writing for the singer was far less interesting than that for the tape.

A thankless piece by Moreton Feldman called "King of Denmark" proved once again that minimalist art is better seen than heard, although the glimpses at the virtuosity of percussionist Al Merz were welcome. There was also something called "Knocking Piece" by Ben Johnston, where two percussionists banged around inside a piano in uncertain rhythms, with all the charm of carpenters carving out condominiums early Sunday morning.