No doubt President Bush enjoyed a lively and colorful performance of "Starlight Express" at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night. But if he wanted real fireworks, he should have gone next door and heard the Louisville Orchestra play in the Concert Hall.

After all, the Louisville Orchestra is something of an American music success story. It nearly went broke at the outbreak of World War II and its financial picture looked equally bleak in 1948. But through a steely disposition and a bold foray into commissioning contemporary composers, the Louisville Orchestra is now recognized across the world for its commitment to new music.

Contrary to popular belief, a steady diet of symphonic music written after 1900 will not damage the brain cells. As last night's program attested (and as the Louisville Orchestra has proved for 40 years), it can be positively invigorating.

Chinary Ung's "Inner Voices" (1986) was a perfect marriage of richly dappled sonorities with a crystal-clear understanding of musical form. It was neither an Eastern-style composition in Western garb nor vice versa, but a carefully detailed offshoot of the two. Translucent textures and thick cacophonies have rarely sounded so fine in opposition.

Paul Hindemith's Piano Concerto (1945), played by pianist Lee Luvisi, was equally compelling. While not as brilliant as the Ung composition, Luvisi and conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith did a superlative job of rendering its sometimes somber lines with grace and elasticity, and the fiery conclusion was simply spectacular.

But if one wanted to hear the Louisville Orchestra and American "classical music" thinking at its best, one had only to wait for Elliott Carter's Variations for Orchestra (1955) and Morton Gould's concluding "Flourishes and Gallop" (1983). Both were imaginatively conceived and played with irrepressible beauty.

European spectaculars like "Starlight Express" today command a strong though transient following. Washington premieres of works by Ung, Hindemith and Carter deserve a better fate. One suspects that, last night, President Bush missed the real McCoy.