A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Marvelous Maestro

George Cleve is a fake, a phony, a fraud.
For as long as I've known him, Cleve – the founder, conductor and guiding light of the Midsummer Mozart Festival, which just completed its 41st season – has been masquerading as a grumpy old man.
But I have bad news for him: Nobody is fooled. Nobody has ever been fooled. I mean, if he's such a grouch, how come so many people love him so much?
Before he even raised his baton to conduct the first piece at this year's festival, people in the audience were giving him a standing O. Not to be outdone, the musicians in the orchestra stomped their feet so loudly, it sounded like thunder was rolling through the beautiful First Congregational Church of Berkeley, where the concert was held.
Partly, the applause was a tribute to the consistently high quality of his musicianship. As the Mercury News said about his rendition of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, "He struck an excellent balance between drama and tenderness, with the kind of alluring interplay between the orchestra's sections that Mozart lovers look forward to all year."
But people also love him because they see his curmudgeon act for what it is – an act. Under that grumpy fa├žade is a total pussycat who is generous to a fault.
Just ask the folks at the Berkeley Humane Society, for whom he has, without fanfare, organized chamber music concerts as fundraisers.
Or the many young musicians he has quietly nurtured and encouraged over the years, including those who came up through the Mozart Youth Camerata, which he founded in 2009, and are now professionals in their own right.
Or the high school seniors and college students currently in the festival's new internship program, whose musical education is being greatly enhanced by rehearsing and performing side-by-side with the professional musicians in the orchestra, who have been playing Mozart together for years.
For me, his sweetness with young people is best exemplified by his friendship with the amazingly multitalented 19-year-old pianist/violinist/composer Audrey Vardanega, who made her debut with the Midsummer Mozart Festival at age 14, making her the youngest soloist in the festival's history.
 He's become a surrogate grandfather to her. They hang out and watch old movies and play with his cats, Winston and Alfie. And although he has the highest admiration for her musical ability, that's not what he mentions when he talks about her. Instead, he brags about what a great, unspoiled, unaffected kid she is.
And that's music to Audrey's ears because she has fought all her life against being defined by her talent. As she once told me, "I want people to judge me by my personality, not how well I play the piano."
At 79, Cleve's health has been fragile lately. But as soon as the old lion picked up the baton, the years fell away; and he conducted with a power and majesty that would be the envy of a man half his age.
Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, "Maestro George Cleve is one of the great Mozart interpreters of our time and place," but Ferlinghetti is wrong. Cleve is one of the great Mozart interpreters of ANY time and ANY place. He's a great man.
And, as I hope I've demonstrated, he's a good man, too.