“Why Old Places Matter” — the title of Eric Nathan’s tricky, lovely new trio, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and premiered by them at Jordan Hall on Sunday — could also be a classical-music rallying cry: No other musical clique cultivates more game and soul of an old-school flick, as it were, forever revisiting and reviving bygone eras and repertoire. Nathan’s piece takes inspiration from historical sites in Italy (where the composer spent a year as a Rome Prize winner), rather than the virtual sites of the classical canon. But it still hinted at why some old music never gets old.
Scored for oboe, horn, and piano (John Ferrillo, James Sommerville, and Randall Hodgkinson on Sunday, an enviable and exact crew), “Why Old Places Matter” opens with a softly turbulent, twitchy dance between sound — quick flourishes, hazy chords — and silence, the music snatching its own presence out of the void. It alternates with a second notion, the winds triggering haloes of resonance from the strings of the piano, layering overtones onto the sound, echoes altering their source at the source. That idea becomes the basis of the second movement: Sommerville tolled a long series of horn calls (a traditional classical-music stand-in for nostalgia and reminiscence), that, after a brief reprise of the first movement’s jagged swirls, returned muted and distant.
The contrast between the two movements was expressively pointed, evoking the built-in frustration of experience: the first movement’s sensory overload, the second’s poignantly incomplete memory. Thus the attraction and vexation of music: We never quite get it all, and we never quite remember what we get. No wonder we return, again and again. “Why Old Places Matter” certainly made a convincing case for a repeat visit.
The rest of the program left the main roads for some less-traveled attractions. Ferrillo and Sommerville, along with oboist Mark McEwen, hornist Rachel Childers, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda, made sprightly work of Josef Myslivecek’s Quintet no. 2, unassumingly smooth Classical-era stylishness belying both the quirky instrumentation and the composer’s impoverished straits when he wrote it. Arthur Foote’s 1919 Nocturne and Scherzo for flute (Elizabeth Rowe) and string quartet (Malcolm Lowe, Haldan Martinson, Steven Ansell, and Jules Eskin) was an artifact of prime, prim, proper late-school Boston Romanticism.
Finally, Antonin Dvorák’s Serenade in E, in an arrangement by Nicholas Ingman, for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violins, viola, bass, and piano, reconstructed a possible precursor to the work’s string-orchestra final form. The players (joined by clarinetist William Hudgins and bassist Edwin Barker) were relaxed tour guides, before tightening the focus for an animated send-off. The landmark might have been of questionable authenticity, but the trip was still diverting.