"It's amazing—all these really, really good people coming here for such a short time. There's nothing like it," Marc Neikrug, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's longtime artistic director, says about the hyper-talented array of instrumentalists, singers, composers and conductors who find their way west to Santa Fe for a couple of months every summer.

We are having our annual pre-season gossip on the SFCMF's sunny patio recently, and Neikrug is his usual intense self, holding forth on artists, critics, programs and coming attractions for the festival's 37th season, which opened July 19.

"Highlights?" he says. "There aren't any highlights. Everything's a highlight."

Well, yes, of course. But he has special words about several programs he's put together, beginning with the first pair of Sunday-Monday evening concerts, just concluded, at St. Francis Auditorium.

Debussy's three-song cycle, Chansons de Bilitis, appeared on the program of the festival's first concert in 1973, beautifully sung by mezzo Jean Kraft. But the composer prepared a rarely heard second version in which several of those prose poems by Pierre Louÿs are simply recited with instrumental accompaniment. English actress Claire Bloom was narrator July 19-20 in Debussy's spoken chansons and in another rarity by Debussy's colleague, André Caplet—his "Conte Fantastique," based on Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death."

The SFCMF's Thursday noon concerts, informal and intermissionless, are among its most fetching features. July 30 brings young Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan to the St. Francis Auditorium with an exotic cocktail of late Schubert, Thomas Adès and Ravel's intoxicating "La valse."

The Aug. 2-3 program includes Walter Braunfels' rarely heard "String Quintet, Op. 63." Although a relatively conservative composer at the tail end of the German Romantic tradition, Braunfels' music was banned as "degenerate art" by the Nazis, and he, half-Jewish, went into self-imposed internal exile on Lake Constance during the war. He died essentially forgotten in 1954. The "String Quintet," like most all of his music, is practically unknown. "It is so, so beautiful, on such a high level, with a slow movement that just grabs you," Neikrug says.

An Aug. 9-10 program the following week features Schubert's great "Octet" and includes the premiere of Neikrug's "Green Torso—Green Torso Too." Inspired and provoked by Dan Namingha's gift of a small sculpture, the first part of the piece was heard at Angel Fire last year.
Neikrug expanded upon that work, hence the "Too" of the title. A full-scale version of Namingha's sculpture will be on stage, so audiences can meditate upon inspiration and composition.

Two extraordinary pianists perform during the last full week of the festival. The first, French-Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin, has been long known as a brilliant program deviser and an apostle of less-performed, ferociously challenging composers like Charles-Valentin Alkan and Leopold Godowsky. His noon recital on Aug. 18 features works by Berg and Debussy, concluding with Alkan's "Symphony for Solo Piano." Frankly, this is a concert not to be missed.

Neikrug characterizes Kuok-Wai Lio as "the most exciting young pianist I've heard in a very long time." Lio is one of Gary Graffman's prized protégés at the Curtis Institute. "Hearing Lio, I thought: a 20-year old Perahia," Neikrug continues. We'll hear for ourselves at the noon, Aug. 20 concert, featuring music of Stravinsky, Schubert, Kreisler/Rachmaninoff and Fauré.

There's plenty more, of course—premieres by Gunther Schuller, George Tzontakis, Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate; old favorites like the Orion Quartet and relative newbies like the Johannes Quartet; new music specialists like Real Quiet and eighth blackbird. Neikrug, a serious foodie in his spare time, likes to use culinary metaphors to describe his programmatic put-togethers. So, sticking with metaphors—he's been busy in the kitchen lately and just started serving up a potentially smack-your-lips season.

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival 2009 season
Various locations in Santa Fe and Albuquerque
Through Aug. 24