Last Thursday, Audrey Vardanega, the fabulously talented young concert pianist from Oakland, was in her apartment in New York City, where she's beginning her junior year at Columbia, practicing "Scarbo," the final movement of Ravel's suite "Garspard et la nuit."
Suddenly, the phone rang. It was her mom calling from Oakland with the news she'd been dreading for months: Her beloved mentor and surrogate grandfather, the great conductor George Cleve, whom poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti called "one of the great Mozart interpreters of our time and place," had died from liver failure earlier that day in his home in Berkeley.
"I was truly, truly blessed to have him in my life," she says. "George took me in when I was 11 years old. He coached me, arranged some of my first appearances with orchestras, watched old movies with me, and taught me the importance of respecting the integrity of the composer. He never missed a concert I gave.
"He taught me how to give some of myself to others through music. He showed me how to use music to express love. I am so thankful for his grand life, his stubborn love, and his support for all my endeavors. I know that he's listening when I play, and I will never play another bar of Mozart without thinking of him. I will always miss him."
Then, when the phone call was over, she paid tribute to him in the only way she could think of: She went back to practicing "Scarbo."
"I felt it would be OK because wherever there's music, he's there. That's the beauty of George: He WAS the music. He wasn't just a conductor; he let the music consume and define him. I was supposed to play that piece for him next December, but now that's not going to happen."
But she did get a chance to play for him one last time the week before he died, when she went to his house to see him before boarding the plane for New York. She played some of his favorite pieces, including "Ondine," the first movement of "Gaspard et la nuit," and the "Petrarch Sonnet" by Liszt.
"I'm so happy I did that. I would have regretted not seeing him one last time. He didn't look very good, and I had a horrible feeling that I wasn't going to see him again. I knew that this was it."
But, in a curious way, she's still learning from him.
"That night I wasn't able to go to sleep. I kept hearing a motif from Brahms' 'Romance,' and it was as if he was coaching me on it, giving me advice. He loved Brahms, and this motif kept repeating and repeating in my head. It felt like George was planting it there."
And she'll keep learning from him for as long as she lives.
"I'm not a religious person, but whenever I play anything I played for him that he loved to hear, I'll feel him listening. He gave so much to so many, and he asked for so little in return."
And the feeling was mutual. I once asked George how good Audrey was for her age, and he laughed and said, "Martin, she's good for ANY age!" Then he added, "But the best part is that she's such a great person."