The main items in the enticing "John Adams: Perspectives" project at the Kennedy Center are two big programs with the National Symphony conducted by the composer, last week and this week.

But there was room, too, for a bonus event held Monday night in the center's Terrance Theater, where Adams led a free concert devoted to two of his finest instrumental works.

The program opened with "Shaker Loops," a certified classic of minimalism from 1978 -- and a major contribution to 20th century music, period. Seven intrepid string players from the NSO dug into the hypnotic score, responding smoothly to every gesture from the animated Adams. They offered admirable technical finesse and an intense phrasing that found expressive richness behind each melodic pattern, each rhythmic pulse.


The featured performers: violinists Alexandra Osborne, Glenn Donnellan and Marissa Regni; violist Jennifer Mondie; cellists James Lee and Yvonne Caruthers; and bassist Jeffrey Weisner.

By the composer's own admission in remarks to Monday's audience, the Chamber Symphony from 1992 is

the hardest piece he has written. It certainly is an eventful score, taut and propulsive, filled with ideas that get brilliantly explored and colorized.

Adams couldn't have asked for a more eager and involved group of musicians than the 15-member ensemble gathered for the occasion from the Conservatory Project, a semi-annual Kennedy Center/Millennium Stage project that brings together some of the best and brightest from the country's leading music schools. (Local plug: The players for this concert included bassist John Coker, a grad student at the Peabody Institute, where his teacher is the NSO's Jeffrey Weisner.) UPDATE: The spelling of John Coker's name corrected 5/19. Someday I'll go in for that eye exam.

The performance of Adams' Chamber Symphony crackled with energy and tension, and the coolest parts -- especially the finale, titled "Roadrunner" -- seemed even cooler than usual. The trickiest bits appeared to pose no challenge for the participants, among them violinist Yiying Julia Li, a Curtis Institute student who tore into the wild last movement cadenza with disarming confidence and brio.

This bracing immersion in Adams' music served as a perfect appetizer for Monday's main event at the Kennedy Center -- a concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. More on that later.