The Kennedy Center's coveted Friedheim first prize for new American orchestral music was awarded Saturday night to Gundaris Pone's composition, "Avanti!," a terse, atonal memorial to the composer's cousin, who was "assassinated in the street" in Rio de Janeiro.

The one-movement work is solidly in the tradition of Viennese serial music, complete with frequent allusions to the music of the Viennese master, Alban Berg. Yet for all of atonality's reputation of relative unlistenability, "Avanti!" was as much of a hit with Saturday night's audience in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall as it apparently was to the competition's three judges.

Second place went to a more familiar composer, David Del Tredici, for "Happy Voices," a lovely instrumental fragment in his evolving, evening-long work, "Child Alice," which is based on the works of Lewis Carroll.

Third place went to 30-year-old Washington composer Thomas Ludwig, for his First Symphony, called "Age of Victory," composed as a resolute foil to Leonard Bernstein's pessimistic and moving Second Symphony, "The Age of Anxiety." The Ludwig is a frankly eclectic work that suggested to this listener some of the Big Orchestra works of the '30s and '40s, the works of Roy Harris and William Schuman in particular.

The other works in final contention were a Guitar Concerto by Ivana Themmen, and Dominick Argento's "Fire Variations."

The Friedheims are among the most respected of American musical prizes. They alternate between orchestral work on even-numbered years and chamber works on odd-numbered years. Previous firsts in the orchestral competition went to Vincent Persichetti and John Harbison. A first brings $5,000; a second, $2,000; and a third, $500.

The Pone' victory might be considered an upset, given the prevailing trend back to varying degrees of tonality in musical composition -- a reaction to the relative sterility and incommunicability into which so much of the serial and minimalist music sank in the '60s and '70s.

But the broader message to be had from Pone''s exciting work is that atonality is no more dead now than tonality was during the dominant years of atonality. And an additional point is that when one writes music with emotional impact, it will move listeners regardless of the composer's formal methods.

"Avanti!," Pone' said, "is in eight contrasting sections for virtuoso orchestra, combining advanced compositional techniques with subtle references to musical history." Along with the references to Berg, there are quotes from Mahler, Wagner and, according to the composer, "an Eastern European folk song that no one here would recognize."

Superficially, this technique brings to mind the broad musical pastiches of Italian composer Luciano Berio, but Pone' bristled at that suggestion in an interview, because he considers Berio's work undisciplined. This Pone' work, which requires two conductors, is disciplined indeed -- notably compact, in fact. The sections are sharply characterized and suberbly orchestrated. There is a strong sense of forward development, as suggested in the title. It is a vigorous work about the passage of life, which ends in a very beautiful resolution concerning death that is deliberately ambivalent.

Alluding to the works of earlier composers is a tradition in atonal music. Pone' quotes twice from Berg's chamber music masterpiece, "Lyric Suite," which in turn contains quotes from Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," the work commonly considered to be the genesis of atonality.

And as "Avanti!" ends, in its effort to come to terms with the subject of death, it makes two indirect allusions to Berg. There is a Bach chorale, as in Berg's magnificent Violin Concerto, which was a memorial to Alma Mahler's 18-year-old daughter, Manon Gropius. And at the very end is the sound of the cuckoo, just as Berg's opera "Wozzeck" ends. It sounds 38 times, which was the age of the cousin. Pone' pointed out that in Latvia, where he was born, the cuckoo does not have the childlike connotation it has here, but is "a bird of fate."

The Del Tredici is no less fine a work. It is one of those pieces that is conceptually so complex that one feels apprehensive; it is a five-part fugue organized on a theme in the form of a quodlibet, and if you don't know what that is, you don't need to in order to enjoy "Happy Voices." You don't even need to know it's a fugue. Like most of Del Tredici, there is a marvelous sense of spontaneity, so much so that for once busy jazz lines don't seem out of place in a classical canvas. The work is tonal, but only in the sense that it is not atonal. Its profile -- like that of several of the works, including the Pone -- harkens back to Charles Ives' esthetic, with the sense of several simultaneous planes of activity. Here the planes, or "Voices," are happy.

The Del Tredici was the only one of the works this listener had heard before; that was with the San Francisco Symphony at the premiere, and though that performance was more polished, Saturday's playing by the Peabody Conservatory student orchestra under Peter Ero s had greater clarity. As Pone' remarked, "Sometimes the students try harder."

The work by Ludwig, which was performed here in May at the Inter-American Music Festival, has been praised at some length in these pages; he is clearly very talented.

There could be an equally strong argument, though, for giving the third prize to Dominick Argento for his variations. They are ingenious and might better be attributed to Argento-Brahms. The theme is a blacksmith's tune from his operatic version of "Great Expectations," and he has substituted it for Haydn's tune in Brahms' Haydn Variations. Then the theme is developed according to Brahms' ground plan -- mood, melody, orchestration and all. It may not be profound, but it is charming.

Ivana Themmen's Guitar Concerto is more conventional. Sharon Isbin, who commissioned the work, was a splendid soloist.

If you know the tuneful Spanish guitar concertos, this one is not all that different. The atmosphere in the first two movements is more French, but the last movement finally jumps the Pyrenees into passionate Iberia.