"I'm relaxed. I'm ready." That's Marc Neikrug, artistic director of the Santa Fe***image1*** Chamber Music Festival, on the eve of its 35th season. He'd better be. After a big-bucks, limited-seating gala at the Scottish Rite Temple this Thursday night, the series kicks off for real on Sunday, July 15, at St. Francis Auditorium. It's the first of 46 regular concerts over the next six weeks featuring some 74 artists and six ensembles.

The Chamberfest's come a long way, baby, from that first season back in 1973: Just a half-dozen concerts then, and only 14 artists, including stellar soprano Helen Vanni and big-name cellists Claus Adam and Joel Krosnick. While that opening summer had a few rough spots, this listener won't forget, say, Jean Kraft singing Debussy's

Chansons de Bilitis

nor Alfred Brendel's reading of the Schubert B-flat Major Sonata. There've been some rocky moments over the past 35, but what's a festival, anyway, without financial and personnel issues? Through it all, the artistic level of programming and performance has stayed mighty high.

Take, for example, Neikrug's own programming scheme, one that's worked for all 10 years of his SFCMF tenure. There's what he calls the Category One stuff: maybe eight or 10 knock-it-outta-the-park works like the "Trout" Quintet or Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence" or the Schumann E-flat Major Piano Quintet. He schedules a couple of these each season; this year it's time for the Schubert C Major Quintet and the Mendelssohn Octet.

Category Two, still meat-and-potatoes, broadens out to include, say, the Brahms piano quartets, Dvorák ensembles and Beethoven quartets. There'll be some of each this year, but the big, big emphasis lands on Beethoven as the Festival embarks on a two-year traversal of the complete quartets. The Orion Quartet performs nine this year, seven in 2008.

Then there's Category Three, still broader and harder to classify, with less familiar but notable and pleasing pieces on the bill, like the Elgar Piano Quartet, the Suk Piano Quintet, a Piano and Wind Sextet by Ludwig Thuille, and Messiaen's moving Quartet for the End of Time, fast becoming a repertory staple. The popular Saturday afternoon Bach Plus concerts belong here, too.

Finally, watch out for the Chamberfest's seasonal wild cards. First up is Real Quiet, a three-man band (percussion, piano, cello) that's mainly devoted to postmodern rep-composers like David Lang of Bang on a Can fame. They'll open the Festival with a SFCMF/La Jolla Music Society co-commission: Neikrug's "Ritual," about which the composer remarks, "It's a real challenge writing for a largely percussive ensemble. Only the cello can do the sustained thing. But in 'Ritual' all the percussion is tuned-vibraphone, water bowls, and the like. So maybe you'll think gamelan."

Then, hold on tight when Austrian performance artist, composer, and self-styled chansonnier HK Gruber shows up. Yes, he's a direct descendent of "Silent Night" Gruber, but Neikrug comes right out and calls him a lunatic. On July 27 he'll be assisting at an instrumental/vocal evening, part concert, part cabaret, including songs by Brecht pals Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill, followed a couple of nights later by what purports to be a kiddy extravaganza ("Carnival of the Animals," Ravel's "Mother Goose," Bizet's "Children's Games.") The evening culminates with Gruber's


A Pandemonium for Chansonnier & Ensemble," employing toy piano, kazoo, hosepipes, and other improbable instruments, plus a nursery-rhyme narrative featuring John Wayne, Batman and Robin in bed, and other improbable characters, with everybody, especially Herr Gruber, malfunctioning in a general atmosphere of gone-berserk black-humorous lunacy.

The Chamberfest returns to percussive, big-bang events midway through the season with a three-day Percussion Festival dedicated to the memory of composer and performer John Wyre, a founding member of the Canadian percussion group Nexus, who died last October. Neikrug had known Wyre as a brilliant co-artist at the Marlboro Festival where the percussionist performed for many years; the SFCMF commissioned a work that will be performed as part of the Festival.

Preceding the Wyre premiere, there'll be a showing at noon, Aug. 9, of a film,

World Drums

that documents Wyre's Expo 86 gathering of more than 250 of the world's greatest percussion artists to perform one of his pieces. The next night D'Drum, a highly rated LA ensemble, performs at the Lensic, and then on Aug. 11 they're joined by four more percussionists for that final Wyre tribute, to include three of his works. There'll be dozens of instruments filling the Lensic stage with nine guys dashing through the percussive battery, hitting on all manner of things. Expect sounds and moves and, well, complications.

One final note. Although Neikrug makes it clear that he never, ever reads anything that music writers write: Happy 10th, Marc. Hope that white dinner-jacket still fits.

SANTA FE CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVALSunday, July 15-Monday, Aug. 20

Locations and prices vary