Thirty-nine years ago, the great conductor George Cleve was relaxing with some friends over a few beers after they had finished a rehearsal of Mozart's opera "The Abduction From The Seraglio."
Nobody remembers who, but somebody said, "Wouldn't it be fun if we could play nothing but Mozart all the time?"
They all looked at each other, and presto! The Midsummer Mozart Festival was born. Under Cleve's masterful baton, it has blossomed into two weeks of sheer, unadulterated pleasure every year.
And this year's lineup looks better than ever, chock full of sure-fire crowd pleasers like "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," the "Paris" Symphony, the sizzling Violin Concerto No. 5 featuring the great Mayuko Kamio, the sublime Wind Serenade in C minor, and, because it's the festival's 39th year, Symphony No. 39, all performed by the world-class Midsummer Mozart Festival Orchestra.
But for me, the prime attraction, as it has been every year since she floored me four years ago at the tender age of 13, is piano-playing sensation (and she's not too shabby on the violin, either) Audrey Vardanega of Oakland.
Anybody can play all the notes right, but Audrey has the ability that only the greatest have – to bring the listener into the music and make you feel like there's a direct pipeline from Mozart's mind to your soul. Listening to her will make you weep – not only at the beauty of the music but also out of joy that a human mind was capable of creating it.
Audrey will perform Piano Concerto No. 14 in E flat, and she says it's the most difficult piece she's ever played.
"It's unassumingly demanding. There are very few notes, very few technical passages, but the phrasing is very difficult. It demands a luminous, warm tone, so you don’t want to come off as too quiet on stage.
"But at the same time you don't want to be too forceful, or you're going to lose the whole tonal quality that Mozart goes for. You have to be paying close attention to what you're doing every single second, or you're screwed."
So what can we expect?
"The first movement is very noble. When I play it, I imagine trumpets, a fanfare introducing the whole piece.
"The second is one of the most gorgeous slow movements Mozart ever wrote – diminished chords with a beautiful, painful melody on top. It's so sad, but you can't play it that way. You have to hold in the pain that's threatening to burst out in spite of yourself.
"And the final movement is really happy, very characteristically Mozart. It's really cute. Usually it's the first movement that's cute, but this one is so effortlessly happy and carefree, you forget all the drama in the second movement."
The festival will run for two weeks from July 18 to 28, with two completely different programs each week.
And good news for longtime festival goers: After an absence of several years, the festival is returning to the beautiful Mission Santa Clara and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, in addition to the Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma and my favorite, First Congregational Church in Berkeley. (Wait until you hear the acoustics!)
Check the festival's website, midsummermozart.org, for details. You can also buy tickets on the website or at the gate.