Thirteen years ago Charles Wadsworth, the feisty dynamo who at 54 continues to look like the Tom Sawyer of the music world, held a press conference here, announcing that his Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center would be presenting a chamber music series in the new 2,743-seat Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Hardly anybody thought it would work.

But the Chamber Music Society, which opens its new Washington season tonight, has flourished.

At the beginning, one respected Washington e'minence grise, contemplating the boom in the performing arts here that was just under way, told him so.

"He said, 'Charlie, you know chamber music, but you don't know Washington,' " Wadsworth recalled early this week. " 'Chamber music is the one thing we already have plenty of, most of it is free, and anyway, you'll never fill a hall that large with chamber music.' " The latter, in particular, seemed a valid point. Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, where this remarkable group has been based since it began in 1969, seats only a little more than a third of the Concert Hall's capacity.

But the doubters were proved wrong--immediately. And today, the Chamber Music Society's concerts here, with a top price of $14 a seat, command the largest audience of any chamber music group in this city--as well as in New York.

Largely as a result of Wadsworth's knack for combining quality, novelty and liveliness, the Chamber Music Society has created its own audience--much in the same way as that other innovative enterprise at Lincoln Center, the Mostly Mozart Festival.

"This year in Washington alone we have sold more than half the seats by subscription," always one of the surest signs of a stable performing arts institution, he remarked, "and 95 percent of last year's subscribers resubscribed, which means practically everybody who didn't move away."

The society was the idea of composer William Schuman, who was also the first administrative head of Lincoln Center. Schuman had also founded the Juilliard String Quartet when he ran Juilliard, and he thought that chamber music should be on an equal footing at Lincoln Center with opera, the Philharmonic and ballet.

He chose Wadsworth, gave him three years for planning and told him to recruit the best talent, and enough people to explore the whole range of chamber music--including the conventional string quartet but also things like the delightful Dvorak Serenade, for instance, which requires nine wind players and two string players. "Schuman knew what I was looking for," commented Wadsworth, "and he supported me."

It is this interest in diversity that distinguishes the Lincoln Center players--with Washington's more limited Theater Chamber Players of the Kennedy Center perhaps the only similar organization.

"I was naive enough to think it would work," said Wadsworth, "and it turned out that it did. The biggest risk was that it was a very expensive venture."

Wadsworth recruited people like British clarinetist Gervase de Peyer and Australian horn player Barry Tuckwell, who recently pulled out.

Schuman was breaking new ground with the Chamber Music Society and he needed a person to run it who was both unorthodox and sane. Wadsworth is both. He is also a fine pianist, a gifted administrator and a man of great charm. He applies his powers of persuasion in a drawl that remains from his youth in Newman, Ga., before he went to Juilliard on a scholarship and then studied extensively in Europe. For some years he made his principal living as an accompanist for singers, and that was how he came to take over the chamber music programs at Gian Carlo Menotti's Spoleto Festival in Italy, as well as the Dumbarton Oaks concerts here.

Since its debut, the Chamber Music Society has played more than 750 programs. It tours extensively, records and is televised in PBS' "Live from Lincoln Center" series. Also, it has commissioned more than 65 new works--by composers including Barber, Chavez, Ginastera, Milhaud, Boulez, Berio and Schuman.

Among its present members: de Peyer, oboist Leonard Arner, violinist James Buswell, the Emerson String Quartet, bassoonist Loren Glickman, pianist Lee Luvisi, cellist Leslie Parnas, flutist Paula Robison, violist Walter Trampler, soprano Frederica von Stade and Wadsworth. Recently getting von Stade was a real plum. Wadsworth recalled, "She came to us. She had sung with us before. And she said she wanted to spend more time in this country and wanted to become a member. I was overjoyed."

This year there will be 90 concerts, and the budget has risen from an initial $250,000 to $1.7 million.

One immediate priority is for Wadsworth, whose wife is Susan Wadsworth, the director of Young Concert Artists, to take a sabbatical. He has not had much of a break since he started the planning in the mid-'60s.

"I love writing pop songs, and I want some time to write a musical," he said.