For years, the 20th Century Consort has gently dismantled the resistance of many to music that is new and different. How fitting, then, that on Saturday night its artistic director, Christopher Kendall, was presented with the Smithson Medal for the Consort's 15-year association with the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. And how appropriate that members of Kendall's ensemble in this Hirshhorn Museum concert should celebrate with music that reduced those barriers still further.

There's no question that the inroads this ensemble has made are in large part because of the caliber of its musicians -- they don't come much better than violinist Elisabeth Adkins, cellist David Hardy, clarinetist Loren Kitt and pianist Lisa Emenheiser Logan. An enormous working knowledge of the repertoire and intelligent programming helps too.

Allan Schindler's "Vessels of Magic" (1987) had such a strong and gratifying sonic presence that knowing the Mark Rothko painting from which the work is named -- or the Calder, de Chirico and Nolde artworks that further inspired it -- seems of secondary importance. The music stands very well on the moods and gestures it alone evokes.

Mario Davidovsky's "6th Synchronism" (1970), despite its cold and mechanistic title, was similarly engaging, a stunning exploration of prerecorded computer-generated sound playing from the virtuosic live piano of Logan. This Pulitzer Prize-winning composition was riveting at every turn, which was more than could be said for the Hindemith quartet (1938) that preceded it. Even with Hardy's superb cello lines and Kitt's mellifluous clarinet phrasing, it still sounded like a dull conversation with a boring uncle.

Charles Ives's Trio (1904-11) was quintessentially Ivesian: a name-that-tune sound montage cast in sepia tint -- and the pastiche was just as much fun for those of us who weren't Yalies at the turn of the century.