Boston is a city that looks after its chamber-music fans, with a rich slate of permanent ensembles, ad-hoc groups, faculty concerts, celebrity visitors, and student performers. But even against this backdrop, the Chameleon Arts Ensemble has distinguished itself over the course of two decades by sheer dint of its sparklingly imaginative programming. Its concerts are the slow food of local chamber music, events where sounds and sensibilities, rhapsody and reverie, old music and new, are balanced with care and a sense of individual voice.
Whose voice, you may wonder? Flutist Deborah Boldin founded Chameleon in 1998, and — many, many stuffed envelopes later — she is still its artistic director, staffing each concert with a protean troupe of like-minded, mostly New England-based performers. The first season featured five concerts; the upcoming 20th-anniversary season will feature no fewer than 19 events.
Pausing in her preparations for Chameleon’s opening concert on Sept. 23, Boldin spoke with the Globe about the group’s early years, the Zen of programming, and why her hard drive is chock-full with the first lines of poems.
Q. What inspired you to found Chameleon?
A. I realized that if you wanted to have a life in chamber music you had to create one for yourself. And I didn’t want to just play one kind of music. As a flutist, in fact, I didn’t have the luxury of surrounding myself with 10 Beethoven sonatas — I had to play music from Bach to today. I also love listening to that range of music, so Chameleon addressed both of these needs. To this day, listening to my colleagues realize what I’ve dreamed up for a Chameleon concert is one of the most rewarding things I do.
Q. Was there a steep learning curve at the outset?
A. You definitely don’t forget the hard work that’s involved, and all those questions: How do you put on a concert? Who moves the music stands around? Who opens up the piano lid? When we first started, in a Boston Globe review of our first concert, Richard Buell wrote that we were young and just out of conservatory, and that we mention our kittens in our bios. We immediately updated the bios to sound like grown-ups! [laughs] We’ve now done 250 or 300 concerts, so we know the pitfalls and can certainly prepare for them. But I sometimes almost long for that earlier time, and that sense of naivete. There’s a certain freedom in not knowing what could possibly go wrong!
Q. How would you describe your philosophy of programming?
A. The basic idea is that music of the past informs the present. And over the course of the last 20 years I’ve developed some rules. It started with something simple — that every concert would have something classic and standard, something neglected, and something new. I’ve also thought a lot about what makes a balanced concert, and the idea of different textures and styles. So for instance, I would probably never put Brahms and Schumann on the same program. They have different sounds, but they seem to live in the same house. I want an experience that opens a door and brings you somewhere new.
I also like to use extra-musical ideas in order to frame all of the works on a concert, so no single piece of music feels like filler, and that the contemporary music doesn’t feel like it’s there to teach something. Human context is the key. What moves me is the emotional aspects of the music, and if you can combine that with the intellectual, you get at something that can thrive.
Q. Many presenters seem to feel that it’s quite risky to program music people don’t already know and love. Did it feel like a giant leap of faith to put together those adventurous early programs and expect that people would actually come?
A. I maybe shouldn’t say this, but I don’t make choices based on whether I think anyone will like it. I try to create a miniature cosmos with each concert. I like each concert to feel like it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That it takes you somewhere, and that it eventually brings you back, and that it reminds you of why we love music. Of course I care that people like it once they come in the door, but I don’t try to presuppose what they’ll like. And one way I get around that is by trying to make sure that every piece I select is absolutely an A-list piece of music.
Q. Is it true that your program titles all come from poetry?
A. Yes! They are borrowed bits of poetry that allude to the theme of the concert, but very rarely say it outright. It started because the very first program I put together had works by Charles Wuorinen, Haydn, Copland, Debussy, and Beethoven. But I didn’t realize until after it was on paper that they were all trios. Then I just happened to be reading some Emily Dickinson at the time, and I came across “Three times — we parted — Breath — and I.” Nearly 300 concerts later, I’m still desperately searching for bits of poetry that fit with what we’re doing. And I have a big file with first lines of poems. It’s taken on a life of its own!
Q. Do you have any help with programming?
A. I pick every piece on every program, and I work and rework the programs over many years until they are saying what I want them to say. You won’t believe me, but when I planned the current season, I was choosing from a pool of 80 complete programs I’ve created over the years [but had not yet scheduled]. Every year I go back through all of my files and pick what are the things I really want to say this year. This season’s opening concert program has been sitting in my notes for five years! My friends think I’m nuts but I can’t help it. It’s the editing process that makes each Chameleon season distinct. I want each year to sound like us, but I don’t want to be repeating myself from one concert to the next, or one year to the next.
Q. Is there a unifying theme for this upcoming season?
A. I wanted to get hold of what I think of as the resonance of history — of music on a long continuum. The season finale has pairings that show composers looking backward, so we have Stravinsky looking backward to Tchaikovsky, Britten looking back to John Dowland, Mendelssohn to Handel, Colin Matthews to Purcell, and Marc-André Dalbavie to Gesualdo. We’re calling the opening program “Creating an American Sound.” It’s impossible to define the American sound in one two-hour concert, but we’ll give it a go. And in fact, this opening concert also fulfills what I consider a 20-year-old promise to our clarinetist Kelli O’Connor: that one day we would play “Appalachian Spring” together.