At this time of year, Santa Feans train their eyes on the hillsides of the Sangre de Cristo range to spy the golden tones that mark the finale of the aspens’ annual cycle. At the same time, ears are tuned to the sounds of rebirth, as ensembles and presenters launch the fall-to-spring concert season aimed at local listeners rather than the migrating masses of summer.

The Los Alamos Concert Association (LACA) takes the plunge into its 70th season this week. It began presenting touring musicians in the 1946-1947 season, a year after the town made its most explosive mark in history and many of its resident scientists and their families were settling into a more normalized existence, or at least one that was infused with less urgency than during the World War II years. The organization presented three “acts” in each of its first four seasons, and browsing through the performing roster of those early years, which curious music lovers can do at LACA’s website, offers time-capsule recollections of such stars as violist William Primrose, mezzo-soprano Martha Lipton, harpist Mildred Dilling, and the Trapp Family Singers. In the 1950s, offerings were expanded to four per year. (Remember the Longines Symphonette, featured in 1952-1953, or the Hollywood String Quartet, from 1958-1959, in which conductor Leonard Slatkin’s parents, Felix and Eleanor, played violin and cello?) They increased to five annual performances in the mid-’60s, a quantity that maintains to this day.

The concerts, which take place in the local high school auditorium, seem very much community affairs, but a 45-minute trip from here to there hardly seems unwarranted when leading musical lights are at the other end — although the mountainous drive home in the dark may not be appealing, especially during the winter months. Then, too, LACA often presents musicians who concertize frequently in Santa Fe, which makes their draw generally less forceful.

This year, however, LACA has put together its most promising season in recent memory, with each of its five concerts seeming full of potential. First off the block is pianist Sean Chen, a bright lad who grew up near Los Angeles; had to sort through invitations from Harvard, MIT, and Juilliard when he reached college age (he decided on the last); and went on to win the third place at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013, the first American to medal at that quadrennial event since 1997. Chen’s technical facility is at the high level such achievement requires, but he also exudes personal and musical charisma that enhances his connection with his audiences. On Friday evening, Sept. 25, he’ll be presenting virtuosic works by composers who were also notable pianists: a little-visited suite by Nikolai Medtner, études by Chopin and Debussy, Ravel’s Sonatine, and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2.

The American who preceded Chen to the Cliburn medal ceremony in 1997 was Jon Nakamatsu, who, in a pleasing act of symmetry, will appear in the season’s closing concert, on April 17. Nakamatsu is no stranger to music lovers hereabouts, having appeared most recently in several concerts of this past summer’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. He seems to me more distinctive as a chamber player than as a solo recitalist, and it is in the former role that he will appear in Los Alamos, as half of the longstanding duo he has formed with clarinetist Jon Manasse.

In between come an orchestra, a vocal ensemble, and a string quartet. The Irish Chamber Orchestra, on the slate for Nov. 7, will exert special appeal on Hibernians and Hungarians. Based in Limerick on the Emerald Isle, it is conducted by Gábor Tákacs-Nagy and will spotlight cello soloist István Várdai, both of whom are products of the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. On the bill are two cello concertos, by Haydn and C.P.E. Bach, in addition to Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 (La passione) and Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. A Hungarian touch should prove enriching in Bartók, but it should also be apropos in Haydn; when he wrote La passione, in 1768, the Esterházy Court (which employed him) was moving its principal activities from the environs of Vienna to its newly renovated palace in Esterháza, within Hungarian borders.

The 12-member men’s vocal ensemble Chanticleer travels down from its roost in the Bay Area on Jan. 24 with a program that is not yet announced. OnMarch 11, the stage will be the domain of the Dover String Quartet, an admirable young ensemble that puts a strong emphasis on tonal elegance. The foursome, which in 2013-2014 was the first-ever quartet-in-residence at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, will play a piece by David Ludwig (of the Curtis faulty), as well as Mozart’s Quartet in B-flat major (K. 458, nicknamed the Hunt thanks to its opening theme, which evokes a horn call) and Beethoven’s Quartet in F major (Op. 59, No. 1, the first of his Razumovsky set). At least the Dover’s recital should be a must on music lovers’ “to do” lists.

On the home front, the San Miguel Chapel concerts, which began in somewhat tentative fashion last season, are really taking off this year, with 19 concerts planned from now through July. These are self-produced concerts by a variety of performers who seized the opportunity to perform in a historic venue with very good acoustics, no amplification (hallelujah!), and a capacity of 142 seats. The rental fee is modest, and so, in a way, are the amenities; lavatories, for example, are in the pizza restaurant next door. Last year, an evening in the pews could prove penitential, but they have now been refurbished with cushioned seats, which should be a marked improvement. The concerts begin this Saturday evening with a recital by Roberto Capocchi, Santa Fe’s go-to classical guitarist, who will return on March 12 with a program of modern guitar works. Other classical highlights include Baroque concerts involving the acclaimed viola da gambist Mary Springfels with internationally noted colleagues, including (among others) violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock on Oct. 23 and April 8 and countertenor Drew Minter on Nov. 19. 

Also kicking off a new season this weekend is the Santa Fe Symphony. Its opening program is customarily billed as a “Showcase of the Stars” and features not one but two concerto soloists, in this case violinist Itamar Zorman and pianist Olga Kern (another Cliburn medalist, being one of two recipients of the first prize in 2001). Of greater long-term interest, however, is that it is the first of two Symphony concerts this season that will be led by Guillermo Figueroa. Since the 2013-2014 season, the orchestra has been engaged in a search for its next principal conductor, and it has now announced that of the numerous contenders who have graced its podium since then, it has narrowed its list of finalists to four, three of whom will be paying return visits this season: Figueroa (on Sunday, Sept. 27, and Feb. 14), Ryan McAdams (Jan. 17 and May 14 and 15), and Oriol Sans (March 20). (The May 14 and 15 concerts are two go-rounds of an all-Beethoven program in which Sean Chen will be the underused soloist in the Choral Fantasy.) The fourth finalist is James Feddeck, whose auditioning extended across two ambitious concerts in 2013-2014 (Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony) and 2014-2015 (Verdi’s Requiem). From a listener’s point of view, this seems an appropriate winnowing, although I regret that scheduling conflicts prevented my attending Sans’ appearances leading the group and that I must therefore accept his inclusion among the finalists as a matter of faith.

Several candidates the Symphony included on its original list dropped by the wayside and never appeared, possibly because booking schedules just didn’t work out, possibly because their careers headed in directions the Symphony found incompatible with its needs. It would seem obvious that all the finalists generated good rapport with the players and the administration, which is sure to play a major role in the selection. Figueroa is certainly the most known quantity hereabouts, since he was music director of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra for 11 years until its demise in 2011. He will already be a colleague and most likely a friend of many of the orchestra’s players, which means that he could hit the ground running. The Symphony must be pondering the fact that Figueroa is sixty-two years old and is therefore closer to the end of his career than to its beginning. With age comes experience, to be sure, and the Symphony will need to weigh that in the balance when deciding who is to lead the group into its future.

The other candidates are considerably younger. Feddeck, who will turn thirty-two in November, would seem to be the farthest along in his career. He was awarded the prestigious Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award in 2013 and this season has a full plate of guest-conducting engagements in the United States, Canada, and Europe, including his subscription debut with the Chicago Symphony. He seems to be on every orchestra’s back-up list, and in the past couple of seasons he has filled in for conductor cancellations at the San Francisco Symphony, Helsinki Philharmonic, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Residentie Orchestra (the Hague), and Hallé Orchestra (Manchester). I am frankly surprised that he has not been plucked for a music directorship so far; and yet, the Symphony will probably be wondering how long he would stay if they did secure his services.

McAdams is thirty-three, and in 2010 he was given the Sir Georg Solti Emerging Conductor Award, which is a second-tier award compared with what Feddeck received. He, too, has a résumé full of admirable bookings, if generally on a less starry level, and last season led quite a lot of opera in staged or concert performances with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, Teatro Regio Torino, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and Wordless Music Orchestra. The last of these underscores his deep involvement in contemporary music, which he is downplaying in his appearances here — the most recent score he’ll conduct is Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, coming up in March — but may prove significant as the orchestra considers it future. Sans, who I would guess to be in his mid-thirties, has not yet advanced as far on his professional path. Much of his résumé revolves around the University of Michigan, where he earned a doctorate in conducting four years ago. In recent seasons, he oversaw webcasts for the Detroit Symphony, but his guest conducting engagements are few and far between. Still, past performance is not an indicator of future results (as the investment folks remind us), and it may be that he provides an attractive fit in the balance of musicianship and budget. The Symphony will have some interesting decision-making to do by the time this season is over, and we will all be eager to hear what news it has nine months from now. ◀