After George Gershwin's death, novelist John O'Hara wrote in The New Yorker, "George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."
I know how he felt. I feel the same way about George Cleve, founder and artistic director of the Midsummer Mozart Festival, who died last summer. His loss is that painful.
A few days before his death, his protégée and surrogate granddaughter, Audrey Vardanega, the brilliant 19-year-old pianist who made her debut with the festival at age 14 (the youngest soloist in the festival's 41-year history), went to his home and played some of his favorite piano pieces for him. It was the last live music he ever heard.
Since then, she's been struggling to find a way to express her sorrow, and she's finally found it. On January 3 she'll perform a memorial concert at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, playing the same pieces she played for him last summer. It's called Concert For George, of course.
"The last few months have been a whirlwind of emotions as I struggled to grasp how the world could possibly not have George in it," she says. "I found solace through wholeheartedly turning to the piano as a source of grief therapy. The performance you will hear will not be a solo piano recital. Rather, it will be as if I am playing for George in the living room of his Berkeley home."
The playlist: Piano Sonata #4 by Mozart, Annees de pelerinage by Liszt, Ondine (part of the suite Gaspard de la nuite) by Ravel, and Klavierstucke (short piano pieces) by Brahms.
"The Mozart sonata was an obvious choice because how can I not include Mozart in a concert for George Cleve?" she says. "The first movement is incredibly beautiful, which reflects the way I've felt for the last few months – sadness, a feeling of nobility, and a catharsis. I haven't played a Mozart sonata in quite a while, but it felt right for some reason.
"Ondine was one of his favorite pieces. I decided not to play the other two pieces in the suite because they're showy and virtuosic, and that's not what I'm trying to do in this concert. I don't want to treat this like a solo piano recital. It's a way to mourn, to remember, and a to express my gratitude for all that time I had with him and the enormous effect he had on me."
The Hillside Club, a masterpiece of the Arts & Crafts movement, was declared a City of Berkeley Landmark in 2004. Its exquisite, acoustically excellent concert hall holds only about 200 people. "It's a very intimate space, which is very fitting for this concert, I think," Audrey says.
The concert starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the door and cost $20 for general admission, $15 for students and seniors, and $10 for Hillside Club members. Audrey is donating her share of the proceeds to Hand In Hand For Syria, a charity that works on the ground in that war-torn country to provide direct assistance to families who are still trapped there. You can find out more about it at www.handinhandforsyria.org.uk/
George Cleve died on August 27, 2015, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to.