Stephen Albert, a composer well known to Washington music lovers, had an important premiere in Baltimore this week, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Zinman giving the first performances of his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra.

The concerto, a big, brilliant, lyric statement solidly in the modern romantic style, is a departure from the preoccupation with James Joyce that has given a special flavor to such works as "Symphony RiverRun," "Flower of the Mountain," "To Wake the Dead" and others performed here by the National Symphony and the 20th Century Consort or recorded on the Nonesuch and Delos labels. It has no program, but has the kind of soulful eloquence that Albert achieves when he has a text to inspire him.

The music, written with Ma giving the composer technical insights into the cello's possibilities, combines emotional warmth and pensive interludes with passages showing virtuoso technique. It is also well realized for the orchestra, which engages in a vivid dialogue with the soloist. It is a significant addition to the cello repertoire; it should be recorded, and probably will be, with a soloist as well known as Ma to champion it.

I heard the last of the BSO's three performances, Saturday morning at its eighth "Casual Concert" of the season -- a pleasantly informal kind of event in which conductor Zinman talks to the audience between numbers, discussing the music and telling a few jokes. To judge by the size and responsiveness of the audiences, these concerts are a great success. The effect is certainly enhanced by the pleasant atmosphere of the orchestra's Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, an auditorium more attractive visually and acoustically than any in Washington.

The program also included the Brahms Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 102, with violinist Pamela Frank expertly substituting for Young Uck Kim, who was suffering from tendinitis.