Malcolm Dalglish, Grey Larsen and Pete Sutherland had played together for three years and developed into one of America's finest chamber-folk ensembles, but no one could remember their name.

"We called ourselves Dalglish, Larsen & Sutherland for obvious reasons," recalls Larsen, the group's flutist and pianist. "We soon realized it was a real mouthful that few people could ever remember -- much less spell."

They finally came up with a name last year.

"We tried real hard to come up with just the right word that sums up everything about us," Larsen says. "We ended up just choosing a word that was easy to remember: Metamora. It happens to be the name of a small town near us, but it's a name that doesn't mean much to most people. We hope it will take on a new meaning, which is us."

The folk trio Metamora balances a dedication to preserving traditional American and Celtic musical styles with a desire to transform them into something fresh and personal.

* They did just that on last year's "Metamora," their first album under the new name. Featuring 16 original tunes and songs, the album set the traditional folk instruments of hammer dulcimer, flute, concertina, fiddle and guitar in precise, almost classical arrangements. Though the material was clearly rooted in the folk tradition -- with lyrics about farmers, sunrises and quilts -- the arrangements gave it a clarity and intricacy rare in folk ensembles.

In December the trio joined four other folk acts that also feature the hammer dulcimer in a sold-out concert at Georgetown University. Playing and singing material from the new album, Metamora was the highlight of the show. The whole affair concluded with a wild encore that had six different hammer dulcimers going at once.

National Public Radio's taped broadcast of selections from that show was so popular that NPR is broadcasting different selections from the same show over Memorial Day weekend. A John McCutcheon record featuring all five acts from this concert is due from Rounder Records this fall. Metamora itself plays at the Birchmere tonight.

"The hammer dulcimer is very primal," claims Dalglish, Metamora's specialist in the instrument. "It's a rhythm box: You bang on it and yet this sweet sound comes out. One big reason it's become so popular in the last 10 years is that they now have automatic tuners so you can keep the damned things in tune, which is a boon for the poor listener. You don't have to be a piano tuner anymore to play one."

Dalglish has just released his first solo album, "Jogging the Memory," which contains 10 unaccompanied hammer dulcimer instrumentals. Unlike some Windham Hill Records releases, this album emphasizes the possibilities of an instrument instead of soothing moods.

"For many years I was imitating a lot of other instruments on the dulcimer," Dalglish admits. "On this album I wanted to do tunes that were not only original but were very dulcimeristic. So I spent a lot of time banging away on the instrument and playing with the strings.

"On 'Rivulets,' for instance, I put winterizing caulk on the strings to dampen them. Then I tried playing the instrument like a drummer -- more interested in the rhythm than the melody."

Larsen also has released his first solo album, "The Gathering: Original Instrumentals," on Sugar Hill Records. Playing flute, fiddle, whistle, concertina and piano, Larsen is joined by his favorite musicians, who include Dalglish, Sutherland, bassist Eugene Jablonsky, fiddler Lisa Ornstein and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, the ex-keyboardist for Ireland's legendary Bothy Band.

Larsen and Dalglish first met in 1975, when Larsen was head of the Oberlin College Folk Music Society, which had invited Dalglish to come play.

It turned out that the two musicians were both from Cincinnati, and they ended up performing there in local restaurants that summer. year they released their first album, "Banish Misfortune," a collection of Celtic instrumentals.

The record's reputation quickly spread through the folk society circuit, and the young duo was soon touring far from Ohio. After six years of touring and two more albums (1978's "The First of Autumn" and 1982's "Thunderhead"), Dalglish and Larsen decided they needed to expand the act. After several trial tours and a few auditions, they settled on Vermont's Pete Sutherland.

Sutherland proved not only a champion fiddler but a prolific songwriter as well. Larsen produced Sutherland's first solo album, "Poor Man's Dream," in 1984, and the trio was soon more popular than the duo had ever been. All they needed was a name.