Depending on the time of day, where you happen to be sitting, or what saint needs celebrating your view of San Miguel de Allende can vary greatly. It might seem like a slick tourist town filled with rich Mexicans shopping at high-end stores and waiting in line for a frappuchino at Starbuck’s. Or you could think it’s a retirement community for a small army of Americans and Canadians wearing shorts and funny hats. Turning a corner you might feel that you’re in a pueblo back in the 19th century as a religious procession passes by, or a donkey laden with firewood ambles down a cobblestone street.
However you see it, it’s hard to miss the charm of the place. It’s one of the best-preserved colonial towns in Mexico  (there have been conservation laws here since the 1920’s). Its narrow streets are lined with grand mansions, soaring churches and stucco-clad houses with red tiled roofs, illuminated by San Miguel’s famous clear light and mountain air. All of which makes it a perfect setting for one of the most celebrated musical events in the country, the annual San Miguel Chamber Music Festival, now in its 34th year. From August 3 to 19, four distinguished chamber music groups will present a total of 9 concerts in the Angela Peralta Theater, San Miguel’s charming19th century opera house.
The award-winning Pacifica Quartet  opens the festival with works by Beethoven, Janacek, Shostakovich and Ravel. The following weekend the Cassatt String Quartet, which has recorded more than 20 cds, plays Gershwin, Shostakovich and Debussy. Later they’ll be joined by the Onix Ensemble, a Mexican group dedicated to Latin American music (they also perform solo on August 12). The final concerts are by the Atlanta Chamber Players, a group that includes strings, wind instruments and piano. Their concerts offer music by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Mendelssohn, among others.
Stan Gray left his high-pressure life as a financial consultant in San Francisco and moved to San Miguel in 1996. Over the years he’s attended more than 150 chamber music concerts, and now volunteers as Vice President of the festival. He’s an avid music lover (he ran an opera company in his youth) and promoter. “There’s no place in Mexico where you can hear this level of music making,” he told me, “and probably no place in all of Latin America.
“To make it to the top as a chamber group takes between five and ten years of playing together constantly. Then it’s no longer a group of individuals, but a single, seamless blend of sound. That’s the magic we offer at the festival.”
“The audiences are unbelievably enthusiastic and appreciative,” noted Stan, “and the musicians respond to that. One German violinist told me she’d never gotten so much applause at home. There’s a real love affair here between audience and performer.”
And apparently the guest artists also love the colonial charm and easy life style of San Miguel. “It’s a small town, so you might see the cellist walking down the street and stop to chat. There’s sort of a ‘summer-camp for grown-ups’ feel to it all. Once during a performance it began to rain—a real downpour. The noise on the roof completely drowned out the music. So they just stopped for a while and we all sat around like a group of friends talking while we waited for the rain to stop. Word has gotten out about the festival and about how great San Miguel is. We have world class musicians now asking us if they can come and perform,” said Stan.
Aside from the public performances, there’s an important educational aspect to the festival. Visiting musicians offer master classes and performing advice to several dozen selected music students who come from all over Mexico. Invited students are also given free admission to all concerts. “Working with artists of this caliber is a thrilling experience for these kids. While Mexico has strong roots in classical music, chamber music has generally lagged behind orchestral and vocal music in terms of excellence. Many of the string quartets in this country are made up of Russian immigrants,” Stan explained. “So this is a rare opportunity.”
“Because the groups are small, chamber music offers a kind of textbook on how to listen to music. You can hear each melodic line so clearly,” Stan added. “And because the space is intimate you really get to feel the music in a special way. It doesn’t get better than this.”
For the complete schedule and ticket information, consult the website: www.festivalsanmiguel.com 
Individual concert tickets are on sale at the Peralta Theater box office, at the corner of Mesones and Hernandez Macias (side door), from 10:00 to 5:00. Telephone: 415-152-2200. For Festival Patron packages and season tickets call 154-8722 or 150-0041 for personal assistance.