What was that manipulative, sexist slogan that promoted smokes for women a few years back ? Ah, yes: You've Come A Long Way, Baby. The cancer-stick peddlers finally wised up and dropped that one. But now that the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival is cranking up its 36th season, it seems not inapt to make a few comparisons, baby, with the then and the now.

1973 in Santa Fe: 6 concerts. 14 artists.
2008 in Santa Fe: 44 concerts. 80-plus artists.
1973: 1 concert series.
2008: 9 concert series.
1973: annual budget of $30,000.
2008: annual budget of $1,681,118.

Besides these seriously significant numbers, a program such as the one opening the current season in St. Francis Auditorium could never have happened back then. For one thing, this year's opener alone required 14 artists—the total roster of 1973 for all six concerts. For another, the play-it-safe programming of then just isn't on the agenda of now.

Yes, a festive and familiar warhorse commenced the first program: Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto. Except for a snappy, precise performance by David Washburn and his piccolo trumpet, though, Bach lacked oomph. The concerto grosso form by definition involves interplay between soloist or soloists (the concertino) and a back-up group (the ripieno). Despite Washburn's precision and the energy of violinist Cho-Liang Lin, the two remaining members of the concertino, flutist Janice Tipton and oboist Allan Vogel, lacked crispness and definition. The slow middle movement just plodded along. The solid ripieno bunch included the Shanghai Quartet plus bassist Marji Danilow and harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh.

As centerpiece of this program we heard a true rarity: eight of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's settings for guitar and narrator from his suite "Platero y Yo," based on texts by Juan Ramón Jiménez. The Nobel-winning Spanish poet published more than 130 brief prose poems in 1917 chronicling the relationship between a donkey and his owner.

It's a charming, mysteriously touching collection. Jiménez' low-key depiction of connections among man, beast and the natural world recalls the detailed sympathy for nature we find in Colette's prose. Guitarist Simon Wynberg and narrator Jonathan Richards offered an appropriately low-key account of this delicate work that delighted much of the audience though some, perhaps more in the mood for red meat, found it soporific.

Nothing seemed sleepy about Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata that arrived after intermission, though. Lynn Harrell and pianist Yuja Wang delivered a warm, seductive reading that emphasized the sonata's sumptuous lyricism. No barnstorming here: just mature fullness of expression. 

The Shanghai Quartet returned later in the first week, opening the July 24th concert with Ravel's Quartet. Their performance lacked little in the way of skill and a certain understanding of the piece; the four placed emphasis on the score's exhausted elegance. Frankly, I could have used more down-and-dirty gutsiness.

Plenty of the latter was on display in baritone Laurent Naouri's presentation of Schumann's "Dichterliebe" that followed hard upon. Naouri is a well-known presence on the operatic stage. The Santa Fe Opera has presented his Escamillo and, this season, Falstaff. He's made a specialty of baroque opera. I enjoyed his energetic Belcore in L'Elisir d'amore at the Bastille Opera a couple years ago. Last season he essayed Schubert's "Winterreise" for the SFCMF.

"Dichterliebe" is not his cuppa. And that's not a snobbish remark about his Gallic presence; I cut my teeth on the magnificent Gérard Souzay's Schubert and Schumann. There's no doubt about Naouri's intelligence or his self-critical and hard-working approach to this Schumann cycle. Some of the songs fare well in a four-square, determined sort of way, "Ich grolle nicht" and "Die alten, bösen Lieder" for example. But there's little poetry in his interpretations and obvious vocal discomfort on too many occasions. Marc Neikrug's sympathetic, well-judged accompaniments made a welcome contribution.

The rarely heard Piano Quintet of Sergei Taneyev concluded the program. I was obliged to leave before the final allegro vivace movement, but both the work and its performance made a stunning impression. The grandly scaled, symphonic opening movement may be somewhat out of balance with the remaining sections, but with such multi-faceted invention, who can complain?

A witty, quick-paced martial scherzo followed with its included, warm little waltz-trio. The third movement, marked largo, featured a descending ostinato figure that supports or overlays achingly lyrical passages for strings and then piano. You may even be reminded of the Grail Knights' music from the last act of Parsifal, it's that wonderful.

Well, forgive me if I wax rapturous. But I try not to exaggerate. Violinist Helen Nightengale and violist Choong-Jin Chang joined Jimmy Lin, Lynn Harrell and Yuja Wang in a formidable performance.

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
Various times and locations.
Through Aug. 25