When the Monty Python crew tossed off their signature phrase, "…and now for something completely different," they probably weren't thinking of how programming gets done for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, whose season opens July 20 at St. Francis Auditorium.

But it became mighty clear in my annual pre-festival chat-up with artistic director Marc Neikrug that surprise and contrast play a major role in the way he's planned many of this season's concerts.

Take that opening program for instance. As high-energy appetizer, there's something old: Bach's Brandenburg No. 2, the one with all those stratospheric trumpet acrobatics. Then something new: excerpts from the rarely heard Andalusian elegy for guitar and narrator, Castelnuovo-Tedesco's "Platero y Yo." The narrative comes from Nobel-winning Spanish writer, Juan Ramón Jiménez—a touching, charming collection of vignettes about a burro and his owner. And finally, to polish things off with a flourish: the super-bravura, super-romantic Cello Sonata of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Another chance to hear a program of a more-than-slightly different cast happens later that week when the Shanghai Quartet performs a repertory staple, the Ravel Quartet. But then Baritone Laurent Naouri, currently the Santa Fe Opera's Falstaff, follows up with Schumann's "Dichterliebe," a passionate, probing setting of 16 Heine love-lyrics. Like the opening concerts, this one finishes with another grandly scaled, late-romantic work, the rarely performed Piano Quintet of Sergei Taneyev.

The program can be first heard in Albuquerque at the Kimo on July 23, when it will be broadcast live over KHFM. Santa Fe will get the in-person experience the following evening, 6 pm at St. Francis.

Neikrug likes to spice up the standard meat-and-potatoes chamber repertory with exceptional, rarely programmed pieces by second or third ranked composers. The Taneyev provides one example of that. On Aug. 21 there's another: the Bruch String Octet.

Composed in the last few months of Bruch's life and published posthumously, it's a dark-toned, Brahmsian work, unjustly neglected and largely unknown to most performers and audiences. Neikrug says that getting these pieces into the concert hall provides an "injection of fuel" not only for audiences but also for the top-flight artists who come to Santa Fe for just such opportunities.

He comments that the right programming finds a balance between what he calls "politics and practicality." It's also about presenting the performers, especially the younger ones, in the best possible light. The Aug. 9 concert comes to mind: young Israeli pianist, Benjamin Hochman, plays Bach's "Goldberg Variations," a baroque Everest of stamina and interpretive judgement that Hochman is ready to climb.

Festival-commissioned premieres will happen this summer as they do every season. To complement Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater in its American premiere at the Santa Fe Opera, the ensemble Real Quiet will offer three world premiere performances of a new work by the Finnish composer, beginning Aug. 5.

Another first hearing, this of Puerto Rican Roberto Sierra's Concierto de Cámera, with the combined forces of the African-American wind quintet, Imani Winds, and the Miami String Quartet, takes place July 27 and 28. The season features commissions by Huang Ruo and Joan Tower as well.

For Neikrug, there just isn't another string quartet playing Beethoven nowadays that can touch the Orion Quartet. They've been regulars at SFCMF for a goodly while now, and commenced their Beethoven cycle last summer. This season they'll wrap it up in three concerts, finishing on Aug. 11 with a reading of Op. 130 that includes the ever-astonishing "Grosse Fugue."

On a slightly nosey note, I asked Neikrug how he felt in general about his work with the SFCMF. "It fits me very well," was his summing up. He's 61 and entering his 11th summer as artistic director or, as he puts it, "the first season of my second decade."

There'll be fewer concerts on the road with Pinchas Zukerman after a year or so, and more time for Neikrug's passion for composition. He's scheduled a couple of his own works this summer: the Piece for Pro Piano Hamburg Steinway Model D & Marimba One, and on the penultimate program, his semi-staged monodramatic meditation on the Holocaust, Through Roses.

Alan Gilbert, conductor-designate of the New York Philharmonic, heard Neikrug's Piano Quintet three years back, liked it, and suggested the piece might bear expansion into a large-scale symphonic work. It became Neikrug's Symphony No. 2, "Quintessence," and Gilbert premiered it with the NYP last March to critical acclaim. Along with directing the SFCMF, Neikrug relishes the chance for more composing.

That means he's not thinking retirement. Far from it. He's conjured up an agenda for what he wants to get done over the next few years, and as his friend, composer-conductor Oliver Knussen remarked, he's "mapped it out." As of now the map doesn't necessarily include the whole nine symphonies thing. But Neikrug's hoping for three or four more, anyway, while he's at it.

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
Various times and locations from Sunday, July 20 through Aug. 25.