Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews George Cleve about his career and the Midsummer Mozart Festival

Material from the Classical Music Column for the July 3, 2009 Preview Section, Bay Area News Group, under the headlines, "Not just Mozart for Maestro," and "Bay Area's preeminent Mozart expert reflects on a long career in music." Note: This version is the interview as originally submitted to Bay Area News Group. Some of the text was not included in the print or the Inside Bay Area website publication.

It's well known that Austrian-born Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) exhibited astonishing musical ability during very early childhood. But then, so did Austrian-born George Wolfgang Cleve almost two centuries later. Cleve sang before he spoke.

His parents and other witnesses staunchly maintained that the little toddler shocked them all by suddenly singing out the tune to the famous German folk song, Kommt ein Vogel geflogen, from the confines of his playpen. His initial audience was limited to family in Vienna; today, Cleve has an audience that extends throughout the world.

A Berkeley resident since 1970, conductor Cleve has garnered an international reputation as one of the greatest contemporary interpreters of Mozart's music. Now 72, he resembles a youthful, hale Johannes Brahms. He is co-founder, along with horn player Wendell Rider and oboist Robert Hubbard, of the Bay Area's highly acclaimed Midsummer Mozart Festival, celebrating its 35th anniversary this year with a tempting menu of Mozart concerts in the Bay Area from July 16 through 26.

I spoke with him last week at the garden book-beautiful Berkeley home he shares and nurtures with his concert flautist wife, Maria Tamburrino.

Noting my awed admiration for the garden, he quickly explained, "Maria gets credit for it." While two well-fed cats strolled elegantly about the house and a young deer leisurely grazed among the verdant plantings outside the kitchen's picture window, the maestro told me a bit about his family, his early music training and his evolution within the Bay Area's music scene.

He explained the festival's birth was a byproduct of a performance of Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail he had been conducting for the San Francisco Spring Opera back in the early 1970s. During post-rehearsal chats with Rider and Hubbard, the idea was hatched to extend the ensemble with further Mozart concerts. According to Cleve, "Mozart's music is in a class by itself — his emotional palette, expressed within such an economy of means, is inexhaustible. "What is so remarkable," he continued, "is that our festival has endured now for so many years — exactly as long as Mozart's 35-year lifespan." Looking back at his own early years, he recalled, "In Vienna, my father was a noted scholar of pre-Socratic philosophy and wrote a definitive tome on the subject." Also an accomplished violinist, his father worked as a film and dance critic for the Viennese press at the same time Julius Korngold (yes, Hollywood film, opera, and orchestral composer Erich Korngold's father) was a music critic.

"In fact," added Cleve, "both the elder Korngold and my father reviewed the premier performance of Ida Rubenstein's ballet version of Ravel's Bolero. His aunt, operatic soprano Fanny Cleve also figured prominently in major European opera performances and premieres during the pre-World War II years.

The family left Vienna when George was 2. They moved first to Budapest, then Italy, before settling in 1940 in New York City, where young George studied piano, then violin. He was sent to New York City's School for Performing Arts, where for a while, he became concertmaster of the prestigious school's orchestra. After acknowledging, with a little shrug, that he "didn't practice enough," he related a life-altering incident.

"A few of my fellow musicians got together at a friend's house to read through J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. We were having a lot of trouble coordinating and staying together, when my friends suggested that I take a pencil and conduct them." It hooked him on conducting.

"I found that I really liked it and had some natural ability. Soon after, with help from Leonard Bernstein, I was given a scholarship to study conducting at Tanglewood. Seymour Lipkin became my primary teacher in both piano and conducting. I also spent about 10 years studying with the great Pierre Monteux."

One of his first jobs after moving to the Bay Area was as a disc jockey for Berkeley's adventurous, often unconventional National Public Radio station, KPFA. Cleve introduced himself to station manager Charles Amirkhanian, indicating that he would like to be involved in a classical music program.

"What are your qualifications?" asked Amirkhanian.

"I handed him a copy of Hewell Turcuit's almost canonizing review of my recent concert conducting the San Francisco Symphony," Cleve said.

In return, Amirkhanian handed Cleve his own classical music radio show. Although a volunteer effort at first, the show provided a showcase for Cleve's quick wit and fearless frankness. Even Herb Caen, the S.F. Chronicle's iconic columnist, picked up on Cleve's show and talked about it in his daily column. The show's format allowed Cleve to present interviews with long-time friends, like legendary classical guitarist Andres Segovia and famed pianist Andre Watts, as well as enabling him to form many more enduring personal friendships with emerging musical luminaries.

Another of his Berkeley adventures was as conductor of the Berkeley Free Orchestra, a vibrant ensemble of ardent volunteers whose "day jobs" were as doctors, professors, music teachers, housewives and more. One particular concert he fondly described featured violinist Ann Crowden, eventual founder of Berkeley's famed Crowden School; members of the Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkeley Symphonies; and Laurette Goldberg, famous harpsichordist and early music expert at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

The group's popularity grew to the degree that when the San Jose Symphony conductor-music director position became vacant, a music critic recommended Cleve to for the job. He was hired.

According to Cleve, a certain Bay Area musical figure commented at the time, "Oh well -- I give that about six months."

"It lasted 20 years," Cleve declared with a broad grin.

Besides guest conducting major orchestras in major works of all periods all over the world, he conducts opera, ballets, and chamber works. Among his honors for so doing, are the rank of "Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters" from France for his performances of French music, an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of Santa Clara, and the Gold Medal of Honor of the Republic of Austria and several Grammy nominations for his recordings with the Bay Area's Midsummer Mozart Festival Orchestra.

Cleve's repertoire extends well beyond the music of Mozart. "Sometimes all that perfection can be a bit much," he quipped.