This morning (August 27) George Wolfgang Cleve, the Music Director of the Midsummer Mozart Festival, passed away at 11:20. Cleve founded Midsummer Mozart in 1974, and it became a major institution for serious listeners. Even when he conducted the most familiar selections from the catalog of the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as he did this summer with the K. 551 (“Jupiter”) symphony in C major, he always brought a freshness to his interpretation, reminding us that there are will always be new facets in Mozart’s prodigious capacity for composition that remain to be discovered.
At the other end of the Peninsula, Cleve served for twenty years as Music Director of the San Jose Symphony. Upon the conclusion of his tenure, in June of 1992, he was appointed Music Director Laureate. This October he was scheduled to conduct the opening concert of the fourteenth season of Symphony Silicon Valley.
Cleve was born in Vienna but moved with his family to New York at the age of four. He was a student at the High School of Music and Art, after which he entered the Mannes College of Music. His teachers there included Paul Doktor (viola), William Kroll (chamber music), and Carl Bamberger (conducting). He also studied both conducting and piano with Seymour Lipkin, who became a regular featured guest artist for Midsummer Mozart. Further conducting studies included Pierre Monteux, George Szell, Leonard Bernstein, and Franco Ferrara.
His conducting assignments have taken Cleve around the world. In the United States he has appeared as guest conductor with such ensembles as the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Montreal Symphony. He was also a frequent guest conductor with the New York City Ballet, where he was invited by Twyla Tharp to conduct the world premiere of her “The Beethoven Seventh” in 2000. In Europe one would be hard pressed to find a country where he had not conducted, and his travels even took him to the podium for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on three separate occasions.
Cleve was also a prolific opera conductor. Here in San Francisco, he conducted two of the Spring Opera Company productions, Georges Bizet’s Carmen in 1973 and Mozart’s K. 384 Die Entführung aus dem Serail (the abduction from the Seraglio) in 1975. He also conducted Carmen for the San Francisco Opera in November and December of 2006. Other operatic conducting assignments included the San Jose Opera, the Long Beach Opera, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia.
With all this breadth of repertoire, those of us fortunate enough to attend any of Cleve’s Midsummer Mozart concerts will remember him for the breadth of insights he provided into Mozart’s prodigious creativity, and those of us who take our listening seriously are likely to find it more than a little sad that we shall no longer be able to benefit from those insights.