Planning a good chamber music program is a delicate art unto itself, and few in town have mastered it as persuasively as the Chameleon Arts Ensemble, with flutist Deborah Boldin as its artistic director. This group, which just concluded its ninth season, presents a modest five performances each season with a regular core of performers drawn from a pool of local freelance musicians. The concerts might easily go unnoticed amidst Boston's generous chamber music offerings, especially if the programs looked like every other.
But they don't. Each one combines much-loved cornerstones of the chamber music literature with distinctive yet overlooked works from the 20th century or freshly minted music from the 21st. The mix-and-match strategy is not unusual, but the Chameleon's particular choices suggest discerning ears and cosmopolitan tastes. Most importantly, the group seems to have earned the trust of its audience, so that even if a listener hasn't heard of every work, he or she will still turn out and give it a chance.
At least that's my way of understanding the capacity crowd that packed the Goethe-Institut on Saturday night for a performance of music by composers Stephen Paulus, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Lou Harrison. It was unusual to see a mainstream audience turn out with such open-eared enthusiasm for a program with so much unknown music. Sure, it helps that the Goethe space is very intimate, so a modest-size crowd feels bursting here. It should also be said that the room is not without its challenges, in particular its mostly non existent sightlines and its rather dry acoustics that can be unflattering for the strings.
Still, in keeping with their formula, the Chameleon players anchored the night with a blockbuster work -- Schumann's much-loved Piano Quintet, given a robust and full-blooded reading-- but even here, they used the popular Schumann as a springboard into less familiar territory by opening the program with three rarely heard violin Romances by the composer's wife, Clara Schumann, transcribed for viola and piano.
The night's performances were not all equally inspired but the level was generally high, and the evening contained one real knockout: Rautavaara's arresting song cycle "Die Liebenden." The work is a setting of Rilke poetry composed in the 1950s for tenor and piano but arranged more recently for tenor and string quartet with added double bass. Rautavaara is a grand old man of contemporary Finnish music , but this work was more of a throwback to that fleeting moment of golden twilight between late-Romanticism and early modernism. Rilke's sensual poetry, intoxicated with yearning, is cloaked in music with a gorgeous Bergian combination of lushness and austerity. Tenor Charles Blandy gave a marvelous performance, his voice ringing out above a dark swirling cauldron of strings.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.