By the time you read this, the 45th annual Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival will be underway. You may know this already, but it’s popular. As always, though, my concern with certain kinds of music (classical/chamber, for example) comes down to one major question: How do we involve younger people?

"I'll tell you how," says Artistic Director Marc Neikrug, now entering his 20th season in the position. "You make it mandatory that every school start teaching music, art, theater and every other vital cultural aspect of human beings from the age of 3. Then it will be no problem."

Neikrug admits this sounds daunting when such a thing is left until potential chamber music fans are in their teens or 20s, but, he says, "I've been hearing for 50 years that the audience is dying, they're old, they're going to be gone, yet they're exactly the same as they were 50 years ago."

Neikrug is, so to speak, a sort of classical music rabble-rouser. The Chamber Music Festival has evolved under his watchful eye over the years from a relatively safe series of concerts into a sprawling organization that tries new things, packs 'em in and educates.

"There are two things I'm obsessed with," he says. "The lack of education and the evolution of our culture. I've got grandkids, so I'm also invested."

This has meant one-day training for area music teachers so they can lead classes in the months before the festival, a program that places violins in the hands of disadvantaged youths and evolving ideas for the fest itself to draw in new and returning listeners. "I've always felt that a festival that takes place over six weeks in the summer has a community obligation in the other nine months to justify being here," Neikrug says.

He also describes himself as having been "genetically and environmentally pre-destined" to this life. The son of cellist parents, he spent most of his life around musicians and says he's been told that at 2 or 3 years old, he peered out a window, observed passersby and wondered aloud: "Where are all those people's cellos?"

Neikrug became a professional pianist and composer himself. In 1983, he came to New Mexico to research an opera he was writing for the Berlin Opera called Los Alamos, met a Santa Clara woman, married her—and the rest, as they say, is history. "About 10 or 12 years later, this job fell into my lap," he quips.

And though the man is "against highlights," and says that anyone could "put a schedule on the wall, throw a dart and hit a great concert," we asked him to choose three specific events from the multitudes in this year's fest as don't-miss.

Feldman by Flux

2-8 pm Friday July 28. Free.
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art,
107 W Palace Ave., 476-5072

"Feldman died 20 years ago, and he had written a string quartet that was literally six hours long," Neikrug says. "It's hardly ever done." Still, the Flux Quartet will play the piece in full. The good news? It's free, and interested parties may come and go as they please.

Vivaldi & Mozart

5 pm Saturday August 12. $44.
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art,
107 W Palace Ave., 476-5072

"This is your 'baroque-y' kinda stuff," Neikrug explains. Pieces include Vivaldi's Piccolo Concerto in C Minor, Albinoni's Trumpet Concerto and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 13. Look, you know the names, just check it out.

L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)

6 pm Thursday August 17. $15-$79.
Lensic Performing Arts Center,
211 W San Francisco St., 988-1234

"It was written after WWI," Neikrug tells SFR of this Stravinsky work, "and it was meant to be a piece that was a very minimalist theater piece that you could go anywhere and throw up as a quick production." This one is perhaps a tad more theatrical than one might expect from the fest and features Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride) playing the soldier, the woman and the devil in a tale about a man who sells his violin or, Neikrug adds, "his soul." Shawn translated the speaking parts from the original French and the Chamber Music Festival will be the premiere of his version.

If those don't strike your fancy, there are 42 other performances to choose from. And even if you think you don't like the stuff (or just don't actually know), Neikrug is confident there's something for everyone. "People are intimidated by all the things they think they don't know about it," he says. "They're intimidated by thinking they aren't allowed to listen if they don't know enough—but music is the absolute equalizer, the only art form which directly connects to you emotionally."

Oh, and PS—all the rehearsals at the St. Francis Auditorium are free and open to the public, and a full schedule is available at santafechambermusic.com.