Take note, please, of a preliminary event at last Sunday's Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival concert: the sight of a large, black-clad man being tugged through the crowded lobby at the Lensic by a small girl. The child? A determined young daughter. The gentleman? This season's distinguished artist-in-residence, Alan Gilbert. Her urgent excuse? I didn't ask.

It was homecoming week for Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic's trailblazing young conductor, as this 40th summer for the SFCMF draws near its close. His Santa Fe connections go way back. He and his father before him were violinists in the Santa Fe Opera orchestra; he then became the SFO's first-ever musical director in 2003. His happy association with the SFCMF began 11 years ago with performances of Varèse and Stravinsky. And he's here this season to conduct three rarely-heard 20th-century blockbusters by Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss.

Back in the day, you didn't dare shout "Schoenberg!" in a crowded concert hall. Even at St. Francis Auditorium not so very long ago, when the composer's early, perfectly tonal string sextet, "Verklärte Nacht" was underway, a SFCMF board member rose from her pew, commented, "Come along, dear. We're not staying for this," and stalked out of the hall.

No more of that, thank goodness, especially given this summer's heavy artistic and financial investment in Schoenberg. Both of the composer's challenging, crucial Chamber Symphonies appeared in concerts in the last few days, and both received stunning performances and solid audience support.

This is in stark contrast to the First Chamber Symphony's 1907 premiere in Vienna where Schoenberg's student, Egon Wellesz, reported "seat-rattling, whistle-blowing, and ostentatious walk-outs." No such thing at the August 5 and 6 concerts, where Gilbert led his 15 instrumentalists in a virtuosic reading of that Op. 9 musical landmark. Schoenberg and his students had heard the Austrian premiere of Salome the year before; he knew the score well. So it's not surprising that whiffs of Strauss' polytonalities, uncanny modulations and tonal ambiguities should appear in the Chamber Symphony.

We hear traces of Wagner, in the Tristan-esque adagio especially, but the work is utterly original—dangerous in its musical brinkmanship. While largely tonal, the Chamber Symphony teeters on the edge of complete atonality and presages Schoenberg's absolute break with the high romantic tradition. Gilbert's account of the piece was definitive.

Gilbert returned, at the August 8 and 9 concerts, to Schoenberg, now his Second Chamber Symphony, Op. 35. Begun and largely completed in 1908, then revised and finished in 1939, this two-movement work is more grandly "symphonic" in scale than the Opus 9. Twenty-seven instrumentalists filled the stage at St. Francis Auditorium, their concentration and focus palpable.

After a moody, multi-textured opening, the first movement expands into passionate exchanges between the several instrumental choirs—a precarious balancing act. In the concluding movement, marked Con Fuoco—Lento, a deranged waltz appears (a dozen years before Ravel's "La Valse"), achieving a shattering climax before disappearing into an end-of-the-world finale. Gilbert and his world-class company provide an unforgettable performance.  

Gilbert's trifecta concluded Aug. 12 with Strauss' lengthy, neglected Sonatina No. 1, Op. 135, for 16 wind instruments. Almost Mozartean in its lithe, smiling elegance, this late work (1943) mirrors many of the composer's earlier pieces, his final opera, Capriccio, in particular. For mellow good humor and brilliant ensemble effects, there's nothing in the composer's canon to match it.

For the near-capacity audience, it was love at first hearing. But the grinning, foot-stamping ovation his 16 musicians gave Gilbert? That was the tribute to remember.

Visit sfcmf.org for dates and times.