(Above: Audrey Vardanega)
If you're looking for something really fun to do this month, you couldn't do better than the 38th annual Midsummer Mozart Festival.
Why am I such a fan? Partly, it's because Mozart is the greatest composer who ever lived. That's not meant as a knock on other great composers, from Bach to Ellington. I love their stuff, but nobody can touch Mozart. His music sounds like it was dictated by God. Theirs doesn't.
It's so good, you don't need to know anything about music to "get" it. Like the Beatles, you're hooked from the first note.
I also love the festival because of the quality of its orchestra and soloists. They're some of the best musicians in the world, including pianist Seymour Lipkin, tenor Christopher Bengochea, bass Kurt Eichelberger, and sopranos Rebecca Davis and Christina Major, all under the direction of one of the world's foremost Mozartians, Maestro George Cleve.
But for me, the biggest draw is 16-year-old phenom Audrey Vardanega, who will perform Mozart's Piano Concerto in G, K. 453.
I first heard Audrey play when she was only 13; and even at that age, she blew me away. Her technical proficiency was immaculate, of course, but her artistry went way beyond getting all the notes right.
Audrey is one of those rare musicians who can communicate not only the essence of the music, but also the sheer joy she takes in playing it.
Remember what Wynton Marsalis said about Count Basie in Ken Burns' "Jazz" documentary? "Basie would be swinging before he even played the first note." That's Audrey, too. She and the music – and the audience – are one.
I asked Cleve how good she was for her age. He laughed and replied, "Martin, she's good for ANY age!"
And the best part is that none of this has gone to her head. She's just a really nice kid who happens to have an extraordinary talent.
Make that talents, plural. As good as she is on the piano, she's also fantastic on the violin.
She's also an accomplished composer with dozens of sonatas, suites and musical scores to her credit, including an original ballet called "Zingara," which will be performed this fall with the Academy Orchestra in San Francisco.
And as if this weren't enough, she's also a talented actor who has interned with ACT in San Francisco.
From an early age, people have been pulling her in all directions. The piano people keep telling her to dump the violin and be a pianist. The violin people tell her to dump the piano and be a violinist. And the theater people tell her to dump them both and be an actor.
To her credit, Audrey doesn't want to be any of those things. She has a loftier ambition: She wants to be Audrey. She doesn't want to be defined by her talents.
That's why she goes to College Prep in Oakland instead of a music conservatory. As she told me, "I want people to judge me by my personality, not my piano playing."
But don't take my word for it; go hear her for yourself. The festival will run from July 19-29 at locations in Berkeley, San Francisco, San Jose and Sonoma County. Visit midsummermozart.org to purchase tickets and get information about specific programs.