In introducing new music Friday night at the Pico Union Project, conductor Christopher Rountree told the audience that this concert had turned out to be a secular program played in a sacred space while Los Angeles burns. So, he continued, think of this beautifully preserved 1906 temple, which serves both as a Jewish house for prayer and more broadly as an interfaith cultural center for the Pico Union district, as a safe space.
It took a minute for this thought to sink in. The two opening pieces, which had been played before Rountree spoke, felt intensely sacred and as though we were literally in welcoming hands. An eight-fold surround-sound drum roll set the synagogue a-shimmer as if by divine magic in James Tenney’s “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion,” with eight snare drums placed around the space, at floor level and on high. Rountree described this work as a kind of palate cleanser. A consciousness cleanser, was more like it.
In Georges Aperghis’ “Retrouvailles I,” two women beat out patterns with their hands during choreographed hugs in a virtuosic celebration of gesture and rhythm. Welcoming hands, indeed.
But this wasn’t in the least a safe concert, and that was its greater magnificence. It was a chance-taking effort by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, part of its experimental — and, reportedly in some quarters of the institution, controversial — “Session” new music events in alternative spaces designed to attract a new and young audience. Dare to put yourself out there, in the heart of the community, and see what you might achieve.
Rountree, when he put together the program with five performers from LACO and four from his band, wild Up, hardly could have predicted how the sense of urgency and fragility that came with the smoky air from the Saddleridge fire might condition an audience. He collaborated with theater collective Four Larks in the use of the space, lighting and projections. Nothing was traditional, including the annoying need to download the program to your phone, resulting in the audience often having little idea of what it was experiencing.
Still, that is how Rountree likes it. He operates on the belief that music has its own power. I think it worthwhile to know something about what you are hearing. But the sheer strength of the music, the performers and the communal aspect of mutual surprise and discovery, when done right, as it was here, cannot be discounted. We were all in a space of no expectations, with no one telling us what to think, assured that this is what safe was supposed to feel like.
Pianist Mark Robson played bursts of single tones and chords that with the help of electronics resonated long and luxuriously. That was Samuel Adams’ riveting “Shade Studies.”
It was not possible to follow the 11 intriguingly named short parts of Marcos Balter’s “Codex Seraphianus,” which began with “Flora” and worked its way through “Hermetica,” “Anthropology,” “Architecture” and the capricious like, without fumbling with a phone and despoiling Four Larks’ lighting. There is an excellent recording for that. This was for the you-never-know-what’s-around-the-corner sensation that the strange tones and quirky textures an ensemble of soprano, saxophone, bassoon, flute and viola can produce.
The two other substantial pieces were Kate Moore’s “Fern” and Eric Wubbels’ “Katachi.” In “Fern,” eloquent, haunting alto flute and bass clarinet drones, punctuated by woody percussion and elongated by electronics, were gripping, the synagogue now a rain forest.
In “Katachi,” a series of etudes for small ensemble, voice and electronics, complexity comes close to finding order. Rhythms, though, deceive. You think you’ve found the groove, but it then eludes you. Explosive shards and embers leave their own hot spots.
Throughout the 75-minute program, Aperture Duo (made up of wildUp violinist Adrianne Pope and violist Linnea Powell sans their instruments) added choreographic, body-musing relief, with a second Aperghis “Retrouvailles” and Jessie Marino’s table-tapping “Rot Blau.”
How the occasional “Session” concerts are meant to fit into the bigger picture of an evolving chamber orchestra is not exactly clear. Only a few LACO regulars ventured, or could be expected to venture, to Pico Union.
Will this, though, bring the hip audience to Royce Hall or the Alex Theatre? Will such experiments filter into the regular programming? Those make up a best-of-all-possible-worlds scenario. In the meantime, this was a concert that mattered in ways a concert needs to matter by offering the right music, the right concept and a meaningful place to be on a night in which L.A. was afire.