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Not Strictly Mozart: An Interview With George Cleve

July 20, 2009

George Cleve is the conductor and founder of the Midsummer Mozart Festival. He was conductor of the San Jose Symphony for 20 years, and continues to conduct both in the U.S. and abroad.

Congratulations on the 35th season of the Midsummer Mozart Festival. What factors do you consider when programming the festival after all of these years?

One thing that occurs to me is that 35 is the number of years that Mozart lived. We’ve been in existence as a festival for 35 years, and we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of the music he wrote. The sheer output of his amazing presence was so overwhelming and at such a high level that, God willing, we could be carrying on with this festival for another 35 years.

What qualities do you seek in your guest artists?

Often there is a personal tie, such as in the case of Seymour Lipkin. He was not only my first conducting teacher at Tanglewood but also my piano teacher for years. I also made my conducting debut at his Blue Hill festival in Maine.

Over 35 years there are bound to be some stories to tell. Can you tell us about a surprising or unusual experience you’ve had?

For me, the mere fact of our survival for 35 years is an unusual experience — there have been years when it was touch-and-go. The spirit of the group is such that no one wants it to stop, although we’ve had to make financial sacrifices. We’ve had guest artists like André Watts, for example, who donated their services to make sure we kept going. It’s that kind of family atmosphere that pervades the festival.

What remains in your memory as the absolute highlight of the festival?

One of the earliest I can recall is when Radu Lupu played the K. 467, the “Elvira Madigan” concerto, quite some years ago. Another was performing Robert Levin’s reconstructed version of the Wind Concertante. Our French horn soloist was Hermann Baumann, who also played one of the horn concertos on the same program. And, of course, last summer we put on our first fully staged opera, The Abduction From the Seraglio, thanks to a generous grant from David W. Packard.

What do you love about Mozart?

What’s not to love about Mozart? There’s something about the music that is very healing. The emotional palette he had at an early age and particularly the later years, and the economy with which he expressed that from an instrumental standpoint, always astound me. His variety of moods: He can go from the deepest tragedy to almost thumbing his nose at the world, in a good-natured but sarcastic way. I don’t think anyone else has approached that kind of completely convincing, quicksilver temperament.

What would you ask Mozart if you could have a conversation with him?

It would be a rather intimidating experience, although, oddly enough, I feel very comfortable with his music. I think Arthur Schnabel said, “Mozart is too easy for children and too difficult for adults.” In that respect I seem to have remained a teenager all my life. If I met Mozart I’d say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, and why couldn’t you have stayed a bit longer?”

Are you typecast as a Mozart conductor? What other style of music or other composers do you enjoy?

I don’t really, no. Of course, Mozart has been a mainstay of my professional life for many years, but I have other passions. Brahms is one, and I love French music, English music; and I adore opera. Because I studied a variety of music with [Pierre] Monteux for 10 years, my tastes and interests are widespread.

What else are you doing currently?

I return to Moscow in October to conduct Viennese operettas, and will conduct Ravel and Brahms with the Symphony Silicon Valley this fall, as well. A few seasons ago I was invited for the first time to the San Francisco Opera to conduct Carmen.

Tell us a bit about your life outside of music.

I live in Berkeley on almost a minipark with my wife, flutist Maria Tamburrino, two cats, and the deer in the backyard. My son and his wife live in New York and they are actors — a more practical profession than my own. We swim every day, a wonderful routine we’ve fallen into this year. I enjoy watching old films. I’ve done so much travel through the years, I’m not so interested in recreational travel. I love my home and like to stay close to it.

What do you wish were different about life in the Bay Area?

I’m frustrated by the financial situation in the state and in the country in general. But on a day like today, you look out and see green and blossoms; it’s hard not to be grateful for living here. People come thousands of miles just to look at it.

Lisa Petrie is a writer and specialist in marketing and public relations for arts and education organizations. She earned a DMA in flute performance from SUNY, Stony Brook, and is the mother of two musical kids. Lisa was the Content Manager for the Kids and Families section of San Francisco Classical Voice during 2011.