The Contemporary Music Forum, which often performs the works of Washington area composers, recently opened its second season of monthly chamber music concerts at the National Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg. c

The seven-year-old ensemble played to sold-out houses throughout its first series of concerts at the bureau last year. Only 50 persons attended this season's opening performance, leading Marilyn Boyd DeReggi, the forum's director of development, to speculate that the small turnout might be due to "the cold weather, or the economy."

The audience was treated to a program of four works by modern composers, performed by violinist Helmut Braunlich, pianist Barbro Dahlman, flutist Katherine Hay and violist Nicholas Marlowe.

A short piece for piano and flute opened the program. In "Cursive" by Chou wen-Chung, Columbia University's music department chairman, full-breathed attacks on crazily pitched high notes were a part of the composer's design for putting Chinese calligraphy to music. The piano, strings muted with metal strips and strummed with the left hand, blended curiously with the contrasting musical strokes of the flute. The virtuosic intensity of the two players served the difficult work in a fine and technically impressive manner. One benefit of the work's acoustical camouflage, however, is that few save the composer could detect any musician's error.

Violinist and violist next performed "Duo," by the Greek 12-tonist Nikos Skalkottas. Beginning vigorously as if already in mid-piece, the musicians flew through the progressive movements. Pulling up for some urgent pizzicato and some strange bowing against the bodies of their instruments, they finished on a strong ensemble note.

At intermission, the audience was invited to examine the scores of the works on the program. Then pianist Dahlman gave a diligent rendition of American composer Vincent McDermott's 1972 dream set to music, "He Who Ascends by Ecstasy into Contemplation of Sublime Things Sleeps and Sees a Dream." Reverberating bass notes on the piano paralleled synthesized sounds from an electronic tape, which included reversals of the sounds from the piano. Then the highest end of the keyboard was exploited, to the extent that the pianist pressed an entire forearm across the keys.

The final work of the evening was a trio for the strings and flute, the American premiere performance of Swedish-American Ulf Grahn's "Mist." Penetrating filaments of sound weaved a textured musical fabric, depicting sunlight breaking through fog. Since it was by far the best-received piece of the evening, calling attention to its only fault of composition -- that of lingering too long on a theme or movement -- seems almost gratuitous.

After the concert, all the musicians and composer Grahn remained for a discussion period. The Forum believes in communicating directly with its audiences. The performers say such feedback is important with new music "in order to discover the composer's art and life or to simulate the growth of an informed and enthusiastic public. . ."

The audience learned how the musicians researched a new piece and its influences -- the players admitting to less than full understanding of the composer's exact intent -- and also were told about some of the problems of playing difficult and unfamiliar works.Grahn warned against misreading program notes or listening for anything too specific in a new piece of music. Pianist Dahlman, who is also Grahn's wife, declared she was not a judge of the music she played.

On Monday nights of weeks following the Gaithersbury concerts, the ensemble performs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.

Roughly a third of the Forum's program -- 117 works -- comprises music by Washington area composers, many of whom live in suburban Maryland. As a representative of the Midle Atlantic Arts Consortium's touring program, the ensemble is performing in six states. Tapes of its concerts are being distributed internationally by Voice of America.

DeReggi summed up the goals of the Forum: "To raise the salaries of the performers through more support; to continue local leadership in the performance and promotion of new music; to conduct lunch time discussions of new music and to devise a transportation plan, so that those in the country can attend concerts." These objectives, she said, are all intended to "kindle a cultural birth in this part of the country."