Life is certainly an exciting bunch of firsts for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center this year. Not only are the musicians scheduled to perform 90 concerts from sea to shining sea and overseas, none of the players could ever recall starting a concert at 7 p.m., as they did last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the audience was told.

No matter. Probably only Armageddon would rattle these professionals. They played provocative works by Poulenc, Beethoven, Dvorak and celebrated modern composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich with the masterly skill and consummate craftsmanship listeners have come to expect.

The long first half was punctuated by the Washington premiere of Taaffe Zwilich's Double Quartet for Strings, a string octet commissioned by the Chamber Music Society. This large-scale work, as the composer notes, is "governed by the belief that a player can be a brilliant soloist one moment and a sensitive collaborator the next." Indeed, the four movements were logical, erudite and demanded exacting technique.

Two quartets, facing each other, explored concepts of unity and pluralism; ideas are exchanged between the ensembles, the various instruments playing solo statements, or echoing each other, at times battling for dominance, or converging in unison. The interplay passed from section to section like a hot potato.

Poulenc's Sextet for Piano and Winds was coarsely executed; the sound was harsh, muddy and unbalanced. Beethoven's String Quintet in C was compelling listening; the performers launched themselves from their seats during the more passionate passages. The short second half was devoted to a gorgeous reading of Dvorak's Serenade in D minor.