"I am master of silences," said composer, speaker and percussionist Richard McCandless, accenting his words with a deep throb on one of the drums that surrounded him. In a new composition in which his percussion gives color and emphases to a text from Rimbaud's "Illuminations," he showed himself also a master of sounds--subtle, emphatic, expertly shaped and richly expressive. His blend of verbal and nonverbal communication was one of the highlights of a concert last night in the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street NW.

It was the inaugural concert of Amaranth, a new chamber ensemble dedicated to contemporary music. There were four world premieres on the program, three composed by members of Amaranth. Besides McCandless and his wife, flutist and composer Jan Pompilo, the ensemble includes pianist and composer Jutta Eigen.

They were joined for this occassion by soprano Elizabeth Kirkpatrick and pianist Alan Mandel, who performed with Pompilo in the premiere of her Six Songs from "Alice in Wonderland" for soprano, flute and piano. This is wonderfully witty music, sometimes in a mock Victorian style, that captures exquisitely the zany spirit of Lewis Carroll's words. It should find its way into the repertoire for that special (and happily growing) breed of musician, the intelligent soprano.

Eigen's contribution to the program was "Spuren" ("Vestiges") for flute and piano, a work of fine, sometimes brilliant lyricism, beautifully idiomatic for the two instruments and flavored with just enough modernity to add interest to its essentially romantic style.

Besides their own works, the members of Amaranth presented music of three other modern composers: "Density 21.5," the modern classic for unaccompanied flute by Edgard Vare se; "Phema (Omaggio a Joyce)" by Luciano Berio, an imaginative tape collage based on the speaking voice of the late Cathy Berberian; and the world premiere of "Apre sludes" by Lawrence Moss.

The Moss piece, in the approachable, lyric style that has become noticeable in recent works by this excellent composer, is a virtuoso exercise for flute and percussion, dedicated to Pompilo and McCandless, who performed it superbly. It is evocative, witty, powerful and delicate--particularly in its rich array of percussion textures. It concluded a most auspicious first concert for a new group that will certainly enrich the already active contemporary music scene in Washington.