The end of the concert represented the end of time Monday night in the Corcoran Gallery's Frances and Armand Hammer Auditorium, and the music -- which had already consisted largely of wisps, hints and fragments -- faded slowly into silence like the ebbing of a millennial tide. The audience held its breath for a long moment before the eruption of warm applause for George Crumb's vividly evocative "Voice of the Whale."

Crumb's work, one of the unquestionable musical masterpieces of the last 20 years, brought a soft-edged climax to a program (well played by the Contemporary Music Forum) that had begun with the half-dozen Duets for two violins by Barto'k -- elemental music that conveys enormous color and vitality in its spare harmonies, angular melodies and athletic rhythms. Alan Chantker's Nocturne and Variations for clarinet, viola and piano had a similar raw energy in its Washington premiere.

Anton Webern's Six Songs, Op. 14, were exquisitely crafted in a late-romantic idiom that insinuated more than it said and drew lightly on the cadences of sentimental cabaret music. They were stylishly sung by soprano Pamela Jordan, whose voice also provided the best moments in George Tsontakis' string quartet "The Mother's Hymn." The Crumb piece, which concluded the program, stood out among these works. It paints a vast panorama of the evolution of life on Earth, using piano, flute and cello with an ingenious and totally assured sense of color. The performers have to do strange things to produce the music's full range of colors -- whistling, for example, and playing percussion as well as their regular instruments. Flutist Katherine Hay talked into her flute, cellist Lori Barnet made eerie sea gull imitations in the high harmonics of her cello, and pianist Barbro Dahlman spent a lot of time bending into her instrument, strumming the strings and producing altered sounds with a paper clip or a glass rod on the strings. It took a few minutes for the musicians to develop a sense of total ensemble while performing these strange functions, but once that sense had been achieved, the effect was magic.