Something remarkable is happening in the musical life of Washington. A capacity audience filled the auditorium of the National Academy of Sciences Saturday night, and more than 100 people had to be turned away from a program by the New World Players Chamber Orchestra devoted entirely to contemporary music for percussion ensemble.

At least a dozen more classical music events (most featuring Washington musicians) drew substantial audiences on Saturday in a city that was once considered a musical wasteland. Even with free tickets, it is amazing that a percussion concert can attract such a crowd in the face of such competition.

The program was as remarkable as the audience. It began with an essay in minimalism and rhythmic elaboration composed for six tom-toms by Stephen Robert Kleiman, the music director of the New World Players. Then followed three complex explorations of the variety of sounds that can be produced by scraping, banging, plucking, rubbing and tapping on instruments ranging from celeste and tympani to flower pots and washtubs. Some of the most striking stroking came in Lou Harrison's Concerto for violin with percussion orchestra, where the instruments included not only flower pots but a bass viol, laid on its back across two chairs and strummed occasionally with drumsticks. Harrison's was probably the best music in a fascinating program, with violinist Lily Kramer lofting rhapsodic melodies through a constantly shifting curtain of vivid percussive sounds.

Nicholas Flagello's "Electra," with solo pianist Stefan Scaggiari, recalled some of Barto'k's color and energy, and Eugene Kurtz's "Logo," with clarinetist Stephen Bates, strikingly exploited the clarinet's wide range of voices and jazz overtones. Big-bang moments were frequent throughout the evening, but the concert--played with this ensemble's usual expertise--also showed how effectively percussion instruments can sing and even whisper.