"I've never been interested in running after audiences."

That's the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's artistic director, Marc Neikrug, commenting last week on 2011's festival programming. He makes it sound simple: "I just present the best music in impeccable performances. That's all." If he can do that consistently, year after year (Neikrug is in his 14th season in the job), he'll have the absolute trust of his clientele, he says. And the man is positive that he's got it.

The Festival, now entering its 39th season, never lacked for heaping platefuls of meat-and-potatoes fare: lots of Ludwig, lashings of baroque-co-co, generous hunks of Schubert and Schumann and Papa Brahms. Twentieth-century music was never off the menu. People still talk about the long-ago Shostakovich quartet cycle; last year, Jeremy Denk's explication/recital featuring Charles Ives' gnomic Concord Sonata made an enormous impression.

What about the really, really new stuff? I did a quick and dirty scan of this season's offerings over the Festival's 80-some concerts and eventually raised a quizzical eyebrow. Baroque and classical works: 21. No surprise there. Early Romantic pieces: 22. Again, no big deal. Late Romantic works: fewer than expected—just over a dozen. Twentieth century: about 15.

But the big surprise arrived when I glanced over the contemporary category (granted, an elusive term). Fifteen pieces including premieres, many composed within the past 10 years by names like Penderecki, Takemitsu, Eötvös, Golijov, Ligeti—more than likely a Festival record for recent music. The season includes co-commissions from Christopher Rouse, Marc-André Dalbavie and Sean Shepherd, who'll all be on hand for pre-performance talks.

Be not afraid, conservative chamber fans. None of the 15 composers specializes in wild-and-wooly atonality or serialism or Reichian repetition.

The Rouse/Dalbavie/Shepherd pieces I've been listening to make their effect through often brilliant musical juxtaposition and thoughtful use of traditional means. Rouse has been called a neo-Romantic; Dalbavie's "Sonnets" for countertenor and orchestra is easy to love. But then like Neikrug's own compositions—his Clarinet Quintet premieres this summer—these recent offerings are calculated to expand, nonviolently, the Festival's musical horizon. When I asked Neikrug if an Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt fest might be forthcoming, he just closed his eyes and mouthed "Noooo."

There's much to savor on the traditional side of the menu, as well. I'd cite, not quite arbitrarily, any of the Festival's popular noon concerts, including Kuok-Wai Lio's Mozart/Schubert piano recital on July 19 and Denk's Bach/Ligeti/Beethoven recital on Aug. 2. Among the generously designed evening concerts, look for artist-in-residence Dawn Upshaw singing Golijov's "Ayre" on July 31/Aug. 1; the Shepherd/Staniland/Dalbavie program on Aug. 12; the complete Beethoven piano trios on Aug. 17/18; the Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion on Aug. 22, the season's final concert. And I can't stop there.

In a more mundane mood, I asked about the SFCMF's bottom line at a critical time for arts organizations. Says Neikrug, "2007 was our best year in history. So far we're running ahead of that. We're doing fine." But both he and Executive Director Steven Ovitsky keep a sharp eye on ticket sales. Neikrug goes on to comment on SFCMF's broader role: its decades-long influence upon the US summer chamber music scene.

"When we got started in 1973, there was Marlboro and not much else. We were pathfinders. Now, the music world understands our role as model for so many summer festivals throughout the country." He adds, "We're living proof that they can succeed. But SFCMF set the direction. It was just a matter of saying loud and clear: We can do this."

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
6 pm
Sunday and Monday, July 17 and 18
Solo Piano Recital
Tuesday, July 19
Through Aug. 22
St. Francis Auditorium
107 W Palace Ave.