A masterpiece was brought to life last night at the Kennedy Center, when pianist Lambert Orkis, conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra, gave the world premiere of Richard Wernick's Piano Concerto. Clearly modern in its idiom but in touch with the traditional ideals, styles and forms of concerto writing, this three-movement work combines technical brilliance (in both the piano and orchestra) with intense emotional communication.

It is superbly tailored to the personality and skills of the soloist, a longtime acquaintance of the composer's, but any pianist should be eager to add it to his repertoire -- any pianist, that is, who has the technique to do it justice.

It is a big work, generating some powerful and vivid orchestral sounds, particularly in the outer movements. The second movement begins and ends radiantly with the special flavor of high-pitched metallic percussion and violin harmonics. There are boldly dramatic piano statements in all three movements. The first-movement cadenza is particularly striking, but so is the middle section of the slow movement and the virtuoso writing for both soloist and orchestra in the finale.

The concerto was commissioned by the Hechinger Foundation, and it continues the tradition of remarkably high quality in that organization's NSO commissions. It is a beautifully balanced work, and its first performance was exciting, though it probably leaves room for improvement. The strongest performance last night was of the final work on the program, Tchaikovsky's jaunty, folk-flavored Symphony No. 2. But by the concerto's fifth performance Tuesday, the orchestra should have the music almost as well in hand as the Tchaikovsky.

In Gustav Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the Death of Children") baritone Hakan Hagegard was in fine voice and evoked deep feelings -- too deep, perhaps, for some patrons whose minds are on the Persian Gulf these days and who didn't need this confrontation with the pain, mystery and pathos of death. The effect was intensified by an unexpected addition to the program at its beginning: a performance of Bach's "Air on the G String" in memory of Robert Genovese, the orchestra's assistant principal clarinetist, who had died a few hours earlier. The Mahler had been scheduled, of course, more than a year ago, when there was no hint of trouble in the gulf, but last night politics added a poignant dimension to the music.