A midsummer Mozart’s dream 

To maintain a festival devoted to a single composer for 38 years, amid economic downturns and fierce competition by big organizations, is a daunting challenge.

As the Midsummer Mozart Festival gets under way in the Bay Area this week, conductor and co-founder George Cleve calls its success “miraculous.”

The famed Vienna-born Mozart specialist remembers well the first rehearsal for the festival: “It happened to be my 39th birthday and we were working on Mozart’s Symphony No. 39,” he says.

Back then, Cleve and co-founding musicians prepared and performed on a “business risk basis,” meaning they wouldn’t get paid if expenses exceeded income.

“We knew we might not make any money,” Cleve says, “but it turned out to be a rousing success artistically, and we were on our way.”

Now, their concerts around the Bay Area have large, loyal audiences and enthusiastic supporters. This week’s program, in four venues, features the Piano Concerto in G, with 16-year-old-soloist Audrey Vardanega; “Vorrei Spiegarvi, Oh Dio,” with soprano Rebecca Davis; and Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”).

The second program, July 26-29, offers an aria from the oratorio “Davide Penitente” with tenor Christopher Bengochea;  Piano Concerto in E Flat with soloist Seymour Lipkin; and the “Great” Mass in C Minor, with sopranos Davis, Christina Major, Bengochea, bass Kirk Eichelberger and Lynne Morrow’s Pacific Mozart Ensemble.

Cleve says of the Mass: “It’s unlike anything Mozart wrote in this genre, and just as his other large liturgical work, the Requiem, it’s unfinished. What remains has amazing grandeur in this 45-minute ‘torso,’ an authentic edition by the late H.C. Robbins Landon, which makes no attempt to second-guess how Mozart might have completed it.”

The Mass disappeared for many years, and scholars discovered centuries later that Mozart used a great deal of the music in the oratorio “Davide Penitente,” so from there and other sources, they reconstructed it, at least in part.

Cleve’s passion for Mozart history is trumped only by his support for young musicians. Four years ago, when Crowden School in Berkeley asked him to coach a student trio, Cleve found Vardanega, whom he calls “an Italian-Chinese pianist from Oakland, looking about 14, with an astounding natural feeling for Brahms — an ‘old soul’ playing.”

Vardanega, who was even younger than Cleve thought at the time, made her debut with the festival as a soloist. This week, Vardanega, who also composes music and plays violin with the San Francisco Youth Symphony, is playing a piece that was performed by a teen student of Mozart at its 1784 premiere.


Midsummer Mozart Festival

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 3 p.m. Sunday and July 29

$30 to $65

Contact: (415) 392-4400, www.midsummermozart.org

Note: Performances also are in San Jose (July 19, July 26), Berkeley (July 20, July 27) and Sonoma (July 21, July 28).

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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