Thursday, August 27, 2015

George Cleve

Well, one of my favorite conductors just died. George Cleve was 79, and had been a fixture in the Bay Area for well over 40 years, since he first became music director of the San Jose Symphony back in 1972. Over the next 20 years, he transformed it from a part-time local band into a serious regional orchestra, increasing both the number and quality of the concerts. He really came to my attention with the bicentennial season of 1975-6, devoted to 20th-century American music, often with the composers themselves (big names, too: Copland, Thomson, Hovhaness, Chavez) brought in to guest conduct.

But Cleve could be highly abrasive and insanely exacting during rehearsal - B. sang with the orchestra in those years and can testify to the long rehearsals and the tantrums - and, though everyone acknowledged that Cleve led inspiring performances, eventually enough was enough and he was persuaded to retire.

In a sense, Cleve didn't mind. By this time, he had his summer Midsummer Mozart Festival to lead every year, and he kept that going on and on.

A dozen or so years later, the San Jose Symphony had run into the ground and been replaced by Symphony Silicon Valley, and in 2005 they finally invited Cleve back. From the moment he took the stage for an all-Mozart concert, I felt transported back to the 1980s. But it was not quite the same. By this time, Cleve - who had some years earlier survived horrible injuries in a fire that destroyed his house - had matured from the spirited popinjay of his youth into a seasoned, portly figure with a striking resemblance to the older Brahms, white beard and all. He had also mellowed, both in temper towards the orchestra, and in conducting style.

Cleve always specialized in the Viennese classics - Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms in particular - and in his later years led these works in a broad, expansive, deliberate way, which his deep learning and understanding of the music always made richly rewarding. When reviewing his work, metaphors of hearty meals of meat and potato always came to my mind. There's always room for traditional music-making of this style, so long as someone this good is making it.

Such were the guest concerts he led on his return. He'd found his truest specialty and stuck with it. When he was music director, of course, his programs were more varied, and it wasn't just in the bicentennial year that he explored American music. I have particularly fond memories of Henry Cowell's Fourth Symphony in 1987, the only time I've ever heard one of his symphonies live, and certainly the only time SJS ever did one: when it was over there was as close to complete silence in the audience, except from me, as was compatible with politeness.

And I remember other things as well. The performance of Debussy's La Mer so sparkling that it had me convinced it was really written by Ottorino Respighi. The day in 2006 I was leaving the city library and heard on the car radio that there was about to be a free performance at the symphony hall, so I hastily reparked my car and found George Cleve conducting Mozart's Gran Partita.

Cleve had been ailing in recent years. The last time I saw him conduct, a year ago in June, he was rather frail, moving quite slowly and needing an assist from his concertmaster to make it down from the podium. The music was equally gentle and cautious, but still moving.

I knew his ailment was serious when his name was quietly removed from the Beethoven and Schumann concert he'd been scheduled to open the SSV season with in October. Now it will be played in his memory.

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