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October 22, 2008 (Review of "Mendelssohn & Beethoven")

Range of Vision
George Cleve brought out the best in Symphony Silicon Valley in three different styles

Scott MacClelland, Metro News
SOON OR LATE, the informed lover of classical music—any culture's classical music and certainly including jazz—figures out that in any given moment, there is always a main event. It can be as broad as a soaring melody or as sharp as a syncopated beat, as harmonically predictable as a Lutheran chorale, as surprising as Ives' Fourth of July fireworks, as nasty as Prokofiev's sarcasm or Bartok's even nastier mockery of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony. And it can be the startling orchestral colorations of a Debussy, a Messiaen or a Lou Harrison.

What sets George Cleve apart from most conductors, aspiring or veteran, is his instinct for the main event. In Cleve's case, it means being in the now while preparing for the next now. Johannes Brahms once explained his approach to beginning a new work this way: "I appeal directly to my Maker and I first ask Him the three most important questions ... whence, wherefore, whither." Any music lover is entitled to expect every musician to answer them. With Cleve in charge, the answers are forthcoming.

Under Cleve's range of vision, Sunday's Symphony Silicon Valley program of Beethoven's First Symphony, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor and Debussy's La Mer required competence in three different styles and got it.

Actually, the distance from Beethoven to Mendelssohn is not great; both works are deeply grounded in the classical examples of Haydn and Mozart. But while subscribing to the Haydn symphony template, the Beethoven hews to a flamboyantly different rhetoric, chock-full of cleverly original surprises. Haydn's own mischief is here raised to a new level, one befitting the new fascination for the grotesque and supernatural that grew out of the chaos following the French revolution.

With the rise of modern Western harmony that kicked off the Baroque style, circa 1600, and right up to the present, music has lain atop a chord progression, a harmonic analogy to "whence, wherefore, whither." It follows a journey, which, like a great movie, reveals clues at the start that will become clear by its conclusion. Beethoven was a master of this and worked with uniquely powerful economy of means. All of this was echoed in Cleve's work on the podium Sunday afternoon. That would not happen if Cleve did not listen to what was going on even as the score itself was long ago etched in his memory.

Also from memory, and with an even greater abundance of surprises, was the Debussy. Maybe the biggest surprise of La Mer is how the composer disguised the repetitions that set up the expectation that, in turn, must be violated—the very classical trick that keeps us coming back for more. What had become easy to trace in Haydn was lifted by Beethoven, yet remains easy to trace. With all the essential clues presented at the start of each of its three movements, La Mer is that great movie. Cleve's style and efficiency underscored a confident and vividly colorful reading by the orchestra.

Associate concertmaster Christina Mok took center stage as soloist in the Mendelssohn, making the great concerto her own. Facing the audience with a firm feet-apart stance, Mok set her tone for the performance at the outset, drawing a broadly phrased line and reinforcing it throughout with strong tone and no small degree of the virtuosity that the score asks for.

Cleve struck that ideal balance between accompanist to the soloist and leader of the orchestra. Using the score this time was only insurance to protect the ongoing dialogue between the three, and happily, none was needed.

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