Norman Scribner is one of Washington's finest musicians and one of the most gifted choral conductors in the country.In this city, however, he is known chiefly for his Choral Arts Society and as a superb organist. Yesterday afternoon in Washington Cathedral, a new facet of Scribner's musicianship was disclosed with the first local performance of his oratorio, "The Nativity."

Yesterday the music showed what those who have known and admired Scribner would have suspected: that his creative power produces music of unfailing taste, open in its appreciation of the great models of English choral writing.

What might not have been anticipated, in addition to outstanding writing for chorus ad solo mezzo and tenor, was the ingenuity and beauty in the chamber orchestra.

For the familiar 17th-century text by Richard Crashaw, a text that has been imaginatively treated by Lee Hoiby as well as by yesterday's conductor, Richard Dirksen, Scribner found precisely the right notes of tender loveliness as the shepherds in that distant Bethlehem field told their story, and a sense of wonder at the mystery of that moment. Not the least impressive touches in the score were the ingenious fugal passage followed by a beautifully developed passacaglia.

The Cathedral Choir, joined by a number of Scribner's longtime singing friends, together with mezzo Kimball Wheeler and tenor Douglas Robinson and members of the National Symphony, gave the occasion a wonderful glow.