As far as the general public is concerned, the words "Contemporary Music" conjure up sounds so dry, whiney, aimless and agitated that a listener might well resort to earplugs or slumber. Washington's Contemporary Music Forum dispels that notion entirely; spend several hours in its midst, and one cannot help but appreciate the variety, subtleness, and even humor, of today's composers.

This gifted ensemble celebrated its 10th anniversary last night with a special concert in the intimate confines of the Corcoran Galleries' Frances and Armand Hammer auditorium. The program, "Creative Washington: Four Washington Area Composers," featured works by a distinguished band of local artists -- Nancy Van de Vate, Jean Eichelberger Ivey, Steven Strunk and Janice Hamer -- and pointed up the considerable talents of eight numbers of the performing collective.

The most striking, binding quality that these works exhibited was warmth and an overriding sense of calm humanity. Both Ivey's "Solstice" and Hamer's "Songs From an Open Hand" (a world premier) set personal, poetic texts (one on astronomy, the other on the search for self) to music for soprano -- in this case the lovely, ardent Pamela Jordan -- and a melange of percussion and woodwind instruments. "Solstice," within its crystalline images of the night sky and pristine melding of many voices, seemed a far more coherent, focused piece than "Open Hand," which relied too heavily on awkward verses and rhythmically amorphous tonal clusters.

Van de Vate's "Music for viola, percussion and piano" was the most programmatic of the works presented. With its insistent glissandos, chromatic runs and mystical pairings of the xylophones and piano, the work easily could have surfaced as a film or television score. Van de Vate's sonorities were so rich and so erratic as to make audience members flinch and laugh. Strunk's "Quartet IV" proved just the opposite; a monochromatic work full of wandering, oozing tones.

The surprise of the evening was Ulf Grahn's musical birthday tribute to the Contemporary Music Forum's director Susan Joseph. With Barbro Dahlman on piano, Katherine Hay on flute and Joseph herself vocalizing in a delightful tongue-in-cheek manner, the piece unfolded in mock melodramatic fashion, and mused about the need to smile.