The phrase "Chamber Music in Historic Sites" could trigger visions of the staid and stolid, yet the truth is something much more vital: The 40th-anniversary season of the Da Camera Society series marked the birth of an inspiring addition to the contemporary music landscape in Los Angeles, the DC8 ensemble.
The group on Friday night contrasted its willful modernity with the classicist 1905 Farmers & Merchants Bank building by architects Morgan & Walls. The structure's temple-based style was intended to provide customers with a sense of confidence and the assurance of fiscal conservatism. DC8's complacency-rattling agenda is quite the opposite, and this odd coupling makes for a bracing now-and-then cultural duality, in true "Historic Sites" tradition.
The concert Friday was dubbed "Journey to the Center of L.A.," relating to the ever-gentrifying Main Street locale as well as the global nature of L.A. culture. It was the DC8's second performance after a February debut here, and the ensemble of skilled young musicians, led by violinist-in-residence Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu, took on music from the early 1970s through the present (last week, actually). The six pieces on the program included two world premieres.
For starters, William Harvey's ink-still-wet "Interplanetary Mullah" came pre-loaded with references to musical influences from Afghanistan, Cameroon and even Mars in the narrative, but it was best appreciated purely for its musical attributes. Heard in the score was a dense blender effect, a post-Charles Ives mesh in the multicultural 21st century. Harvey's piece segued seamlessly into the ensemble gestural poetry of David Ludwig's cannily yet fittingly named "Haiku Catharsis," featuring flutist Chris Matthews.
For the second premiere, the program possibly had its revelatory moment in the form of the calmly powerful "Dreamcatcher" by Slovenian composer Nena Šenk, who studied with Matthias Pintscher and is composer-in-residence with the esteemed Frankfurt, Germany-based Ensemble Modern. By turns muscular, highly detailed and yet somehow dreamy in its way — including the use of a bow on Mak Grgi¿'s guitar strings and fleeting, floating tones as a coda — the work was a boldly personal expression and conveyed sure control of materials.
Violinist Wu and double bassist Nathan Farrington slipped into neo-bluegrass mode for Edgar Meyer's "Concert Duo," while the program's fine finale, "Gradus," by the underrated L.A. composer Stephen Hartke, toyed with ephemeral elements of groove, including a snippet of "walking bass."
Thomas Adès' music steered the musical linguistics from the abstract and tonality-challenged toward something gracefully and ironically tonal — courtly, even — via the important British composer's "Court Studies," slyly linked to Shakespeare's "The Tempest." It could be said that, on this musical menu, the Adès score came closest to tapping into the staunch formality of the bank architecture this evening, except that his music's sense of structure flexes and performs inversions, handily dodging predictable musical moves while seducing the ear.