Just ask Marc Neikrug, longtime artistic director of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, what he thinks about audiences here in the City Diff, and be prepared for a shock. "They are way, way better than in New York: more open, more engaged, more willing to be surprised," Neikrug says. "They really want to be here, and they’re loving everything the festival does."
A cynic might say—sure, Marc. If you say so. But Steve Ovitsky, SFCMF’s executive director and head moneyman, says that the figures agree. Last year, the festival exceeded its $500,000 projected budget for ticket sales by $24,000 and finished the season with a small surplus. This year’s projected sales budget, a big increase to $575,000, was over 60 percent sold as of two weeks ago, and another surplus is expected. (Typically, 40 percent of the season’s tickets sell during the festival itself.) Somebody’s doing something right.
Credit Neikrug’s programming. Since this is the SFCMF’s 40th season, expectations run high, with some unusual and costly programs on the docket. Neikrug’s magic formula for inventing a season involves striking a balance among three elements: contemporary, state-of-the-art pieces; high-quality unfamiliar or unknown works from any period; and those iconic must-dos.
The festival’s contemporary repertoire this summer includes four SFCMF commissions and co-commissions. A young American composer, Helen Grime, appears on the first concert, July 15/16, with the premiere of her work, “Snow and Snow.” Another world premiere, on July 26, features the internationally renowned composer, Magnus Lindberg. Two more American commissions arrive later in the season: David Del Tredici’s String Quartet No. 2 on August 12 and Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Perpetual Chaconne” on August 13.
That second programming element comes in two parts—remarkable works by secondary composers and little-heard works by the big guys. Among the former, witness a couple of Dohnányi pieces and piano quintets by Elgar and Zdeněk Fibich, for example. As for the latter, well, just stand back. Four large-scale, rarely performed 20th-century masterworks promise to be the season’s centerpiece.
To wit: Berg’s post-Wozzeck Chamber Concerto, for 16 instrumentalists with Oliver Knussen conducting, appears on the July 29/30 concerts. Next, Alan Gilbert leads Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 on August 5/6 and his Chamber Symphony No. 2 on Aug. 8/9. Then, with Gilbert still in charge, Richard Strauss’ late (1943) Sonatina No. 1, for 16 wind instruments, will be heard Aug. 12.
Not to be neglected, Neikrug’s warhorse strategy includes both Mozart piano quartets, the Mendelssohn Octet, string sextets by Brahms and Dvořák, abundant scatterings of Bach and Beethoven, and to conclude the season, Schubert’s ineffable C Major String Quintet.
Among the artists new to the festival this season, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni—singing Maometto II in Rossini’s eponymous opera—will be soloist in a couple of Bach cantatas and a selection from Schubert’s Schwanengesang. Another newcomer, pianist Kirill Gerstein, the current holder of the prestigious Gilmore Award, delivers a solo recital on July 24 featuring Schumann’s “Carnaval” plus some Gershwin arrangements—a not-to-miss concert that’s another of the festival’s popular noon offerings.
Other unmissable programs, in addition to those mentioned earlier, include the July 27 tribute to the late Peter Lieberson with music by Knussen and Lindberg as well as Lieberson; the quirky Schoenberg/Kreisler/Johann Strauss put-together on Aug. 8/9; and the all-Schubert concert closing the season on Aug. 20.
But that’s just a start. The SFCMF’s bountiful 2012 season, what with 44 concerts featuring 36 different programs, promises to be a glorious 40th. Which may be yet more proof that nothing succeeds like excess.