The Twentieth Century Consort was in top form at the Hirshhorn last night with a compelling song cycle by the virtually unknown American composer William Doppman at the expressive center of a lively program.

Doppman, who was on hand for the performance, began work on his "Spring Songs" 10 years ago. After setting Chaucer's Prologue to the "Canterbury Tales," which begins the cycle, he put it aside for several years. When he picked it up again, he pursued the musical contrasts contained in the Prologue and strung together a heterogeneous group of texts, including one by John Lennon. Lennon's death during the cycle's completion seemed to startlingly confirm its theme of life's transient nature and Doppman dedicated it to his memory.

Using a vocabulary that owes much to George Crumb, Doppman knows how to give sound an expressive punch. "Spring Songs" revealed a strong talent for translating emotional ideas into sharp aural imagery. Scored for soprano and small ensemble, the cycle received a powerful interpretation from singer Lucy Shelton, clarinetist Loren Kitt, pianist Lambert Orkis and percussionist Thomas Jones.

The program opened with Orkis' stylish reading of Davidovsky's "Synchronism No. 6 for Tape and Piano." It was followed, appropriately, by Crumb's "Voice of the Whale," which was also well treated by flutist Sara Stern, cellist Chris Finckel and Orkis. The evening closed with a pointed rendition of Stravinsky's Suite from "L'Histoire du Soldat" by Kitt, Orkis and violinist Ik-Hwan Bae.

The Consort has scheduled one post-season concert for May 9. It will relate to the Hirshhorn's "De Stijl" exhibit, currently in preparation.