Beethoven's Seventh Symphony sprang from the baton of Darrold Hunt yesterday afternoon as fresh and new as it must have been at its first performance 172 years ago. The music's rhythmic vitality, its unbridled joy and deep solemnity were conveyed by the Washington Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance that crackled with pure electricity.

The Philharmonic, now in its 14th season, has chronically lacked many advantages of more established ensembles -- including a regular concert hall of its own, a stable, substantial budget, opportunities to play together frequently and a leisurely rehearsal schedule. It is amazing that it sounds so good, but it is Hunt's orchestra, as the Cleveland Orchestra was once Szell's or the Boston Symphony Koussevitzky's. It doesn't produce the lush sound of those ensembles, but it does engage in intense, precise communication at a level of excellence.

The program opened with the first Washington performance of the powerful Serenata of George Walker, which uses the harmonic vocabulary of contemporary music for timeless lyric expression. It was eloquently performed and it adds significantly to the reputation of one of our leading living composers.

Pianist Frances Walker was the soloist in Franck's Symphonic Variations -- a performance that was technically fine but, more important, a deep, subtle, well-coordinated exploration of the music.

The Metropolitan AME Church will be the Philharmonic's home for the rest of this season, with three performances of "Messiah" beginning Nov. 30 and a program of Ellington and Bernstein in April. The orchestra fills the church's altar and the string sections overflow onto the floor in front of the pews, but no signs of discomfort or disorientation could be heard in yesterday's performance. The church's acoustics -- bright and clear with a modest reverberation that enhances the sound -- were close to ideal.