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How the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival came to full flower

In Santa Fe the time was ripe for chamber music. The place had long been known for its superb summer opera season. But, as Sheldon Rich tells it:

''When Alicia and I came out here to summer in '72 ... people wanted something more. Richard Gaddes (then artistic director of the opera) knew Alicia from the time we lived in England, and he said to her, 'Why don't you do something out here?' ''

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What they did was found the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, now known nationwide as a fine forum for small ensemble music. This is how it happened:

Alicia Schachter invited a few friends out to make music with her, and things were off and running. ''The idea caught on like wildfire,'' Mr. Rich continues. ''Everyone wanted this chamber music.''

Of course, it did not hurt that one of the people most interested was the celebrated painter Georgia O'Keeffe. By lending her support - and giving permission to use her paintings for the annual poster, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival was on the walls of countless homes and even dormitory rooms in no time.

''Georgia has been a great patron, and a great person to work with and to know. Ensembles go out to her home, and they do a concert here (in town) for her every year,'' Mr. Rich explains. But it is not just O'Keeffe who has guaranteed exposure.

The concerts themselves have set a standard that has become very special, and word of mouth in chamber-music circles is potent. ''The focus,'' says Mr. Rich, has been one of ''performance and excellence in performance ... not diluting it ... with ancillary activities.'' Activities, says Rich, like teaching, which is not done here. ''We focus artist energy totally into the tremendous amount of rehearsal time. We do not believe in throwing a piece together in one rehearsal!''

The artists are consulted closely in matters of repertoire and personnel. For example: Can this artist work with that one? Is this one willing to play second violin here and there? Will one learn this piece in exchange for playing another favored piece? The results speak for themselves. The program I heard this year was a heady mix of chamber music at the highest level - the polished sounds of groups that had long, intensive rehearsals as well as the spontaneity of those that have played together for only a few weeks. Seasoned masters performing with younger talents created an unusual combination of strong profiles blending to serve the piece at hand.

The artists clearly love it in Santa Fe. (Pianist Alfred Brendel has already told the festival organizers he is planning to return in 1986.) No doubt part of the reason they are so happy is thatthe board makes the performers' happiness its top priority. President Laurel Seth cites the board's unusual desire to get to know the players: ''The board can't be this weird entity to total strangers with all this power,'' she quips. Miss Seth, who until this past season ran a family art gallery, came to the festival as a volunteer and five years ago was invited to join the board.

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In the winter, Miss Seth and other local board members are involved in coordinating residential arrangements for next season's artists, general public-relations work for the festival in town, and other such activities. According to Miss Seth, this has all been a plus for Santa Fe: ''There is something serious and solid about chamber music and chamber music lovers. Having that in Santa Fe has had a substantial impact on the town in a positive way. It's hard to make that clear on a certain level to the businesses, that it does make a direct impact on them.''

Mr. Rich notes that this past season had more corporate support than ever, but that funding remained an uphill battle, as it is for every arts organization in the country. ''We're using more and more of our time and resources in generating income. What we have to really do is try to portray our programs as having some sort of national or regional importance. I see the potential of doing a residency in a city like, say, Chicago or Houston or even San Francisco, as throwing off infinitely greater benefits - both to the public and to us - than going back to New York (where the festival had a successful series for three years) and trying to compete with all the chamber groups under the sun.''

Its recent residences in La Jolla, Calif., and Seattle have been consistently successful. The Nonesuch recordings of these performances have been well received. The national broadcasts of the season's concerts are anxiously awaited by a large listening public. And ''sold out'' signs are the norm in town. This season, in fact, an extra half week of programs have been added, and the demand is greater than ever for tickets.

But, says Miss Seth, ''The artists are at the limits of what they can do, and we don't want to get too big!'' Mr. Rich puts it another way: ''It's a tremendous pressure trying to get it all together.''

But the festival has prospered for 12 years now. What started as a summer vacation dream has become one of the more important summer music events in America - and a full-time job for Mr. Rich. No wonder he jokingly talks about closing up shop and going away, all the while consulting another piece of paper about the festival of 1987!

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