A lucky 13th on the horizon?

That might be Marc Neikrug’s upcoming 13th season as artistic director of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, a role he’s filled since 1998. And this weekend, the festival cranks up one more time for the maestro. Years ago when I spoke with him about his plans for SFCMF’s future, he laughed and said, “Well, I need to make it work. I don’t want people spilling coffee on me at Tia Sophia’s.”

I didn’t notice any coffee stains on the man last week, just the usual coiled-spring energy as we chatted about the festival’s 38th season. He summed it up: “36 days, 46 concerts in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, 34 programs. That’s my life this summer. Total immersion.”

He didn’t throw many more statistics my way. But a close look at the new season tells the story. Total performing artists: 68, plus six ensembles. Total composers represented: 36. Total festival commissions: four. Total composers’ pre-concert talks: seven. And total artists-in-residence: one.

That’s a brand-new category this season, occupied by Susan Graham, the Roswell girl who’s riding mighty high these days in operatic and concert mezzo-soprano rep. She’ll be headlining the festival’s annual gala, then performing Jake Heggie’s song-cycle “The Deepest Desire” with its composer at the piano at the festival’s opening concerts.

A week later, she and tenor Paul Groves are featured in what’s shaping up to be one of SFCMF’s biggest-ever, years-in-the-making events: the July 25-26 performances of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. No, there will not be a hundred musicians onstage at St. Francis. David Zinman will lead 15 artists in the transparent, rarely heard arrangement of Mahler’s score by Arnold Schönberg and Rainer Riehn.

According to Neikrug, juxtaposition is key to making a festival work—that’s positioning individual programs against each other, plus balancing these programs internally for sound and impact. Case in point: the Monastic Choir of Christ in the Desert sings Gregorian chants the night before the Mahler; pianist Jeremy Denk performs the Ives “Concord” Sonata at a noon concert the day after.

Pianists get the nod at four of the 10 noon concerts this summer. These intermissionless nooners can be one of the most gratifying features of the season, featuring a variety of artists in subtly sequenced programs. The pianistic parade is impressive; besides Denk, Anne-Marie McDermott and Yuja Wang, young artist Kuok-Wai Lio, who made an impressive debut here last summer, will be heard. Another young pianist, Simone Dinnerstein, offers a mostly Bach recital July 31.

Plenty of the festival’s long-timers return this summer: the Orion Quartet, William Preucil, Lynn Harrell, Tara Helen O’Connor, and Julie Landsman, to name just a few. Among the younger crowd, expect Real Quiet, Liang Wang and pipa virtuoso Wu Man, among others. And premiers abound: new works by Cynthia Wong, Chinary Ung, Paul Lansky, Steven Stucky and Brett Dean.

Neikrug knows that commissioning and performing these right-now pieces is vital to the health of the festival. Not only do they engage the artists with the process of creation, letting new works evolve and come alive in performance, but they help banish the “dead composer” syndrome that can haunt the standard repertory. At SFCMF, the new revitalizes the old. When the festival becomes a mere museum of the Great Works, it’s all over.

That’s where the Santa Fe audience enters the picture. As Neikrug remarked (no news here), “Santa Fe is an anomaly.” His audiences rely on the festival to mingle genres, to come up with surprising juxtapositions, to both tantalize and, occasionally, tease.

Doesn’t Neikrug fret about the consequences? “Not at all. Our audience is on the bus.”