Giuseppe Sinopoli conducted the National Symphony Orchestra last night at the Kennedy Center, and the evening was a revelation. He showed capabilities in the orchestra that are seldom seen if not totally unsuspected. And for anyone who was not already aware of the fact, he demonstrated that he is one of the world's finest conductors.

From the opening chords of the overture to Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," it was obvious that this concert would be special. The playing was alert, powerful, precise; the ensemble sound had a unanimity that seemed almost telepathic; the rhythms were incisive, but not at the expense of lyricism.

In the Verdi and in Mahler's First Symphony, which concluded the evening, the element of contrast is essential and was used effectively. But the middle of the program was filled by Mendelssohn's gently wistful Violin Concerto, a nearly seamless stream of ecstatic melody where tensions and contrasts (even the essential contrast between soloist and orchestra) are nearly submerged in unanimity and continuity. Soloist Salvatore Accardo seemed to see eye to eye with Maestro Sinopoli. Together they approached perfection in a rather small-scale interpretation that took few risks but gave deep satisfaction.

In the Mahler, the no-risk policy of the Mendelssohn was reversed; nearly everything was pushed to an extreme, and the result was exactly right. The slow introduction was held back almost to a standstill, allowing the colors in the orchestral texture to shimmer like a painting or a stained-glass window. This restraint made the effect all the more impressive when he pounced on the first big crescendo.

The wit and irony of the third movement were enhanced by a perfect Viennese lilt, complete with agogic accents. The effect was electrifying when the third movement faded to a whisper before crashing into the finale with everyone on stage generating maximum sound.

Sinopoli's gestures are clear, precise and knowing; he gives the music a glittering surface, but he also probes its anatomy with X-ray perception. His debut with the NSO is a major event, and he should be booked for return visits as soon as possible.

For early birds, musicians from the orchestra presented a "Prelude Concert" of chamber music that unfortunately will not be given in the repeat performances Saturday and Monday evenings. Both works presented were lightweight, but delightfully offbeat and thoroughly enjoyable. Cellist James Lee and bassist Hal Robinson collaborated with wit and finesse in Rossini's Duet for Cello and Double Bass, and flutists Toshiko Kohno and Thomas Perazzoli spun out elaborate transcriptions of Verdi's melodies, with Lambert Orkis at the piano, in the "Rigoletto Fantaisie" of K. and F. Doppler.