A Brief History of the Festival
The idea caught on like wildfire. Everyone wanted this chamber music.
THE HUSBAND-AND-WIFE DUO of pianist Alicia Schachter-Rich and music and film producer Sheldon Rich were visiting Santa Fe from New York City when they got the idea to create an international chamber music festival in the high-desert city famously nicknamed The City Different, with which they’d become enchanted.
“We went to Santa Fe on our vacation in 1972,” Rich told The New York Times in 1979. “There were many well-known painters, writers and photographers. I asked them what there was besides their particular work … [and] asked how they’d react to a few concerts. They responded positively, and one person connected with the National Endowment for the Arts decided the idea was great.”
“That led, as we hoped, to a grant. There was a groundswell of enthusiasm. Directors of the [Santa Fe Opera] gave us a lot of advice and suggestions. The local St. John’s College promised to lend us chairs and pianos. Georgia O’Keeffe, who has become one of the festival’s best friends, let us use her art for posters. In 1973, our first year, we gave six concerts.”
Those six concerts were held in St. Francis Auditorium, the official home of the Festival’s concerts, and there were additional performances in other New Mexico and Arizona communities. The Festival grew steadily every year, and, in 1984, Rich told The Christian Science Monitor: “The idea caught on like wildfire. Everyone wanted this chamber music.’’
FROM THE VERY BEGINNING, two things about the Festival were clear: It would feature the highest-quality artistry, and it would be an integral part of the local community.
In its first program book, the Festival paid homage to two extraordinary but very different artists: cellist Pablo Casals (1876–1973), whom Schachter-Rich had studied chamber music with in Switzerland, and painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), who was one of New Mexico’s most famous residents. The program book opened by noting that Casals, who was also a composer and conductor, was the Festival’s honorary president. In a mission statement of sorts, the Festival said:
The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, inspired by the example of Maestro Casals, is designed to serve the people of New Mexico.
It is an affirmation of Maestro Casals’ belief that music is an international language that can be understood by all people and a heritage that belongs to all people.
In dedicating the Inaugural Concert to Maestro Casals, we remind ourselves of our commitment to those ideals that he has served throughout his life—peace and brotherhood—and to follow the example of a man who, in the words of Thomas Mann, “is one of those artists who comes to the rescue of humanity’s honor.”
With regard to O’Keeffe, the Festival acknowledged the striking image that adorned that first program book, writing: “Miss Georgia O’Keeffe, in allowing reproduction of her painting Music—Pink and Blue No. 1  on the cover of the announcement brochure and this program, has added great beauty to the Festival. We gratefully acknowledge Georgia O’Keeffe’s generous contribution.”
In 1988, Sheldon Rich and Alicia Schachter-Rich received the New Mexico Governor’s Award for founding and directing the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.
Conductor and violist Heiichiro Ohyama, who had performed at the Festival during the 1970s and 1980s, succeeded Schachter-Rich as Artistic Director in 1991. He led the organization for six seasons, while simultaneously running the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest. As he ended his tenure in Santa Fe in 1997, The New York Times called the Festival a “phenomenon in the high desert.”
THE BAR FOR EXCELLENCE, it had been made abundantly clear, was set very high for the Festival from day one, and that bar has remained in its elevated position–exceeding the founders’ initial expectations in new and exciting ways.
Composer and pianist Marc Neikrug, who has served as SFCMF’s Artistic Director since 1998, said, “The Festival is exemplary in its insistence on presenting concerts of the highest artistic quality and programming that is uncompromising in its exploration of iconic masterpieces as well as neglected works from the past and a substantial presentation of the music of our time. Santa Fe is a cultural and spiritual mecca unequaled in our country, and that’s mirrored in the experiences that the Festival provides.
“The Festival has one of the most sophisticated audiences anywhere in the world. The musicians that come—and they’re global, they’re superstars— all remark about this audience. And I want to find a way where the audience is always comfortable having something they’re familiar with and, at the same time, open to the expanse of what this music is.”