classical notes

Diversity shapes Chameleon ensemble's sound

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2009
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Putting together a satisfying concert is an unheralded craft, one largely invisible to the audience members who fill the seats. It requires familiarity with music across centuries, an ear for unusual juxtapositions, and ambitious, creative vision.

For Deborah Boldin, artistic director of Chameleon Arts Ensemble, there is an additional requirement: a big box of paper.

"I have an archive filled with bits of paper with names of pieces and composers and dates and timings and anything I can get my hands on," she says by phone. "And every spring I go through literally every one of these bits of paper."

What she's looking for are patterns, commonalities, similar textures, shared affinities. The end result is most often a theme-based program that mixes standard repertoire with neglected and contemporary works, all of which play off each other in unusual ways. "I think of it like assembling a multi-course meal, or sculpting something . . . Every single piece of music in a Chameleon series is something that I believe in 100 percent. And once it's in a program I can't imagine it anywhere else."

The chamber ensemble's programs - their next one is this weekend - have helped the group carve a niche for itself in a perpetually crowded music scene. Now in its 11th season, the group recently won its second CMA/ASCAP award for adventurous programming, a sign that their innovative approach is being recognized outside of Boston. And at a time when other arts groups are cutting back, Chameleon is doing the opposite. In addition to its five Saturday evening concerts at the Goethe-Institut, this season it has added Sunday afternoon performances for three of the five programs, including this weekend's.

It is, Boldin admits, rather surprising timing. "We weren't expecting the world to go crashing when it did," she says. But "it was kind of an inevitable move for us, since our Saturday concerts have been filling up." Boldin wondered whether the group would simply be fracturing its audience and was pleased when she saw a combination of returning patrons and new faces.

It's an audience that values diversity and challenges, though Boldin didn't know that at the beginning. "When we first started," she says, "we thought the people who would come to our concerts would come for the traditional chamber music." A few years ago, the group did an audience survey. "What we found is that people come for the thematic evenings and for the combinations of music. And that's why we get such a broad cross-section of people who love Brahms but who also love Chen Yi, for instance."

Chen Yi is a Chinese-born composer whose "Qi" for flute, cello, percussion, and piano is on this weekend's program, along with music by Ravel, Manuel de Falla, Judith Weir, and Smetana. The concert, titled "a tale that's told in ancient song," is a good example of Chameleon's programming philosophy at work. Each piece incorporates folk elements from the composer's homeland.

But that's a trope common to a huge number of pieces, and to narrow it down to the present lineup, Boldin was looking for a deeper link, one harder to put into words. "It's a commonality of earthiness, a texture that I hear that connects all these works."

Like every arts group, Chameleon is confronting the dour economic climate and thinking carefully about how to proceed. Boldin says that whatever cuts the group has to make will come on the administrative, rather than the artistic, side of things. "We're very lucky - we have this fearless group of listeners who trust what we're putting together and come and support us. So the kind of trimming we have to do is going to be on the edges that don't affect the kind of programs we do."

She adds that the group had been planning on taking on its first paid staff and hiring a mailing service, "instead of labeling fliers in the middle of the night in my apartment." Those plans have been tabled for now.

"But we're not strangers to shoestring budgets. And we're tenacious. We'll label in the middle of the night if we need to to keep going."

Saturday and Sunday at the Goethe-Institut; 617-427-8200,

The Pacifica Quartet, in residence at the Longy School of Music, won a Grammy award on Sunday for its recording of Elliott Carter's String Quartets Nos. 1 and 5. The recording took the award in the Best Chamber Music category. A second CD of Carter quartets is slated for release later this month.

The Pacifica's next Longy concert is on March 26 and will include music of Dvorak and Mendelssohn.;

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