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December 12, 2005 (Review of "Mozart Festival")

A familiar guest
Veteran conductor Cleve leads Symphony Silicon Valley in Mozart program

By Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Symphony Silicon Valley is by choice an orchestra without a regular conductor. It moves concert by concert from one guest conductor to the next, and many of the musicians say they like the system: It keeps them fresh and responsive to a variety of approaches on the podium.

Still, listening to the orchestra Saturday night under the direction of George Cleve, you had to wonder: How far could Cleve take this orchestra if given a regular chance? … Cleve brought the orchestra very close to that elusive point of equipoise where dozens of players are breathing as one and the music takes on a satisfying glow.

It was his first time on the podium with Symphony Silicon Valley -- a real event, a homecoming -- so you had to be impressed.

The program at the California Theatre was the first in a three-part Mozart festival, stretching through March and celebrating the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth…Cleve, born in Vienna, enjoys a reputation as a fine ``Mozartean,'' (and will) lead the entire festival. So we'll see what sort of a partnership emerges between Cleve -- who led the San Jose Symphony from 1972 to 1992 -- and the South Bay's new orchestra.

The partnership was already operational on Mozart's Symphony No. 38 in D Major -- known as the ``Prague''… Cleve led the orchestra in a performance that was mature and balanced, peaking in all the right places and never getting ahead of itself. Best of all, the gorgeous themes and shadowed harmonies seemed lined with affection….from the first measure of the symphony, a trust had been established.

The first chord was dignified, strong -- and immediately fell to a ``hush.'' There was a golden serenity about the music, but with an edge, pointing toward Beethoven.

As the slow introduction of the first movement gave way to the allegro section, the orchestra was ``in the pocket'' -- rich strings, mellifluous oboe and lots of tension. The playing was clear and clean, delineating Mozart's dense intertwining of instrumental voices.

Gilded with flute

The second movement flow was gilded with flute. The finale, with its crackling rhythm, found Cleve having great success alternating power chords (written almost 200 years before Led Zeppelin) and pastoral wind interludes; Mozart really knew about tension and release. The music kept building, but didn't spend itself too quickly, reaching its conclusion with a terse wallop.

The first two pieces on the program weren't as successful, though they had their moments.

Cleve chose to open the festival with the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for Winds, K 297B, which wasn't really written by Mozart. It is a reconstruction by Robert Levin…The Sinfonia brings four wind soloists out in front of the orchestra -- a small ``chorus'' within the larger group … In programming the piece, Symphony Silicon Valley gave itself the chance to showcase four excellent players: Maria Tamburrino (principal flute), Pamela Hakl (principal oboe), Deborah Kramer (principal bassoon) and David Sprung (a guest, on horn).

The opening movement was special.

Precise and graceful, it zipped along and the soloists were in exceptional form. There were a couple of standouts: Tamburrino (who is married to Cleve, by the way) has a ripe, super-rich sound; Hakl is something else -- a dexterous and appealingly piquant player. The lines these two sang together were sensational.

But by the third movement, matters were amiss. Cleve may have set the tempo a hair too slow and the Sinfonia had moved from zippy to draggy…

Building up slowly

Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 4 in G Major, ``Mozartiana,'' came next…Saturday, the first movement wasn't crisp enough. The second felt perfunctory. But the third glowed and the fourth -- with especially expressive solos by concertmaster Robin Mayforth and principal clarinet Michael Corner -- pointed toward ``Prague.''

…Symphony Silicon Valley may never hire a permanent music director. If it does, it won't necessarily be Cleve; the orchestra has played well for others, too.

But right now, the Mozartean is in the driver's seat.

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