SANTA FE, N.M. — This plateau city has been called America's Salzburg for good reason. A good half of summer visitors will tell you: "It's music that brings me here."
I love music, but during the year, getting to the hall in time often means a mad rush from work or other engagements. An extended summer weekend musical escape, just listening to great performances, with the option of some leisurely touring or shopping, goes a long way to restore my enjoyment of all that is pleasurable in music.
Most summers, Santa Fe offers the most attractive musical destination I can think of.
Of course there are other reasons to visit. Santa Fe is a popular summer vacationland, filled with art galleries, hiking, tennis, horseback riding, and, at times, too many tourists.
But what sets Santa Fe apart from other destinations with similar attractions is its gathering of quality musical presentations here at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Applause From Critics
Each July and August the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the Santa Fe Opera burst into full bloom. Santa Fe is at its best when the cellos, violins and divas come rolling in.
Both the opera and the festival could stand on their own in any location. Critics have applauded both for adventuresome programming, premier performers, and providing real discoveries for the audience.
And Santa Fe's spectacular landscape, clean, dry air, wide skies, dramatic lighting, vast spaces and historic ambiance offer an artistic atmosphere for music listening of a special, rarefied kind.
As a music lover, you'll be in congenial company. More than half of the audiences come from out of town, and they talk knowledgeably about harmony and counterpoint, as well as about Indian jewelry and the spectacular clouds.
I find a marvelous pleasure in ambling to a concert from a nearby bed and breakfast. Enjoying good music while on vacation enhances my appreciation of a performance, both during the visit, and later, when a similar passage heard back in the city evokes the memory of distant lightning during an outdoor opera, or of cool introspection listening to chamber music in historic St. Francis hall.
My two favorite places in Santa Fe are the opera's spectacular outdoor theater and the Chamber Music Festival's mission-like concert hall. Both are worth a visit just to look at, even if you are not a full-fledged music nut.
A good way to begin a visit is with a daytime sojourn in the Museum of Fine Arts, right off the Plaza on West Palace Avenue and within walking distance of most downtown hotels.
Get sidetracked in its exhibits of Southwest painters, or head right toward the west end of the museum where, guided by the sounds of Mozart weaving their way through the galleries, you'll find one of the city's architectural splendors, St. Francis Auditorium. Named for the city's patron saint, the hall is the home of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.
You may find a rehearsal going on in this serene, chapel-like setting, because they run throughout the day. Times are subject to change, so check the schedule outside the entrance.
Although there's an admission charge to the museum galleries, visitors often don't realize that the rehearsals are free and open to the public. Taking in a rehearsal is a much-loved ritual for business people on lunch breaks, artists, students, and mothers with children.
The newly renovated benches in the vaulting hall provide sanctuary from the noon sun, or a rest for tired feet if you've been out shopping and walking. On any given day you'll find festival regulars such as pianist Ursula Oppens, cellist Nathaniel Rosen or violinist Ani Kavafian, all talking and laughing as they make music together, refining a performance.
A Page From History
I like the dignity and simplicity of the auditorium. A page out of Santa Fe's rich history, the hall until recently was the largest public assembly place in the city, hosting gubernatorial inaugurations as well as concerts. It was built to resemble a Franciscan mission but, contrary to popular belief, was never a church. It was built as part of the museum, an anchor of Santa Fe's art history that opened in 1917.
Take time to look at the murals on the whitewashed walls. Designed by Donald Beauregard and executed after his death by Santa Fe artists Carlos Vierra and Kenneth M. Chapman, the murals depict St. Francis of Assisi's influence upon art and music.
Gaze at the ceiling, which has some of the most beautiful vigas in town--Spanish-type ceiling supports made of horizontally placed logs, most often aspen--adorned with intricately carved corbels. The hall's acoustics are also the best in town.
The seven-week chamber music festival, July 6 through Aug. 18, offers Sunday, Monday and Thursday evening concerts. This year the festival highlights Beethoven piano trios and string quartets, some rarely heard Shostakovich works and a tribute to Lizst on the 100th year of his death.