Walking up the aisle at the Lensic Performing Arts Center during intermission at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's last concert of the season on Aug. 22, I heard startled comments everywhere: "Whew," "Astonishing," "Where's that been all my life?"

“That” astonishing piece has been around since 1937: Bartók’s rafter-rattling Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, long since recognized as a monument to modernism, and given a rousing reading by pianists Victor Santiago Asuncion and Cecile Licad, and percussionists Jeffrey Milarski and David Tolen. Bartók faced the fact that the piano is as much a percussion instrument as the tympani, snare drum, gong, cymbals, et al that accompany it. And when the sonata gets a performance as thrilling as the SFCMF provided that night, it’s little wonder that audiences swoon.

Marc Neikrug, the festival’s artistic director, built his season finale around the Bartók sonata, but pondered hard about the rest of the program. 

The previous week highlighted the late, great Brahms String Quintet, Op. 111 (1890) and the late, great Brahms Viola Sonata, Op. 120 (1895). Clarinetist David Shifrin happened to be on hand, so Neikrug’s opener was an eminently logical conclusion: the late, great Brahms Clarinet Trio, Op. 114 (1891), with cellist Eric Kim and pianist Shai Wosner providing a convincing reading that would have benefited from better balance between clarinet and cello.

Mozart concluded both the concert and the festival’s 39th season: the composer’s String Quintet No. 4, K. 516 (1787). GB Shaw famously declared that The Magic Flute contains music fit for the mouth of God, and this quintet could make another mouthful—especially the third movement, marked Adagio ma non troppo. Neikrug’s reasoning for the Mozart? “I wanted the season to end on a note of serious integrity, with a work of great depth and profundity,” he says. “I wanted to show what music can mean in our very superficial world.”

As performed by violinists William Preucil and Benny Kim, violists Michael Tree and Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu, and cellist Eric Kim, the quintet did exactly that. After an imprecise beginning, the ensemble took off with an account marked by balance and grace; the Adagio was purely noble, and the concluding Allegro danced along like an opera buffa finale. 

I asked Neikrug what had been particularly distinctive about the 2011 season. “Oh, people will say that every festival is the best one ever,” he says. “But I really believe this one was special. We try to create a sort of spiritual refuge from all the craziness around us; that’s an overall message. But this year, it feels as if we’ve hit a critical mass; we’re at a place where our audiences understand and respect just about everything we’re about. They’re more open and attentive than ever. They expect excellence and rely on us to provide it. That’s exactly what we’re doing.”

But festivals can’t live on excellence alone. Steve Ovitsky, SFCMF’s executive director, beams when he talks about the season’s finances. “We’re solid on ticket sales,” Ovitsky says. With $520,000 in income this season—a 9.8 percent increase over last year, and $17,000 over the festival’s budget projection—he has reason to smile. 

“By mid-August, we’d reached 90 percent of our fundraising goal, with over two months yet to go,” he adds. “We’ve been in the black ever since 2005.”

That’s a record few nonprofits can claim these days—but for Ovitsky, this level of support derives from the festival’s artistic strength and fiscal responsibility. 

“It’s all about consistency and balance,” he explains. “More and more, audiences aren’t buying a ticket for a specific artist or concert. They’re confident about what they’ll be hearing. And nowadays, they’re just buying a ticket for the festival.”