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October 04, 2015 (Review of "Beethoven & Schumann")

Symphony Silicon Valley's season opener is a fitting tribute to the late George Cleve

Elijah Ho, Mercury News
In the summer of 1836, Robert Schumann made plans to raise a monument to Beethoven through sales of his astonishing new work, "Ruins." For Schumann, a ruin was an object of veneration, a remnant of a vanished classical era. One hundred summers later, in Vienna, the gilded city of Beethoven, a musician was born whose life and devotions in the Silicon Valley would be a monument to the standards and creativity of that glorious time.

Saturday evening at the California Theatre in San Jose, David Amado and Symphony Silicon Valley honored the late George Cleve with ravishing, heartfelt performances of works by Beethoven and Schumann. Cleve had been scheduled to conduct the season opener but passed away August 27 at his home in Berkeley. He was 79.

The atmosphere this opening night was somber, filled with much beauty, as many in the orchestra and audience were witnesses and colleagues to the passions and convictions of the late conductor. Longtime cellist Cheryl Fippen delayed retirement to take part in the concert, dedicated to the memory of Cleve.

Andrew Bales, president and general director of the symphony, spoke briefly on stage about Cleve's work in the community, contributions that span 43 years, and the respects and condolences that have come from around the world from those whose lives were touched by him.

There was a moment of silence, followed by the only sounds that would have been appropriate on this evening: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Salzburg master's ethereal "Ave verum corpus" filled the hall, rendered by the orchestra with the conductor's podium left unattended.

"George Cleve was a superb musician of the very highest rank," said pianist Nikolai Demidenko, soloist of the evening. "In my opinion, he was wildly underrated by the music world at large. On a personal level, I found him very humble and modest about himself."

Musical integrity was one of the traits most esteemed by Cleve. A frequent collaborator and an artist of uncommon ability, Demidenko showed that particular value in Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto.

The beloved "Emperor," written in 1809, comes at the end of Beethoven's most feverish period of creation. Trained in Russia, Demidenko sounds nothing like the older generation of Horowitz and Gilels or even his peers at the Moscow Conservatory: Mikhail Pletnev, Ivo Pogorelich and Dang Thai Son, to name but a few.

Demidenko revealed the intricate beauties and structures of the score, and the senses responded accordingly to his musical integrity. His articulation and knifelike rhythm are remarkably fine, his textures clear and free of neuroticism, as displayed in the cascade of cadences that open the powerful Allegro. His phrasing and meticulous inner-ear produce the prettier, brighter sounds of his generation, as found in the Adagio un poco mosso. He reveled in the beautiful life within the music with shades of tone in the Allegro ma non troppo that blossomed like a flower.

Schumann's Second Symphony in C major is one of the glories of the Romantic repertoire, with some critics of the day declaring its finale even more impressive than that of Beethoven's Ninth. Though Schumann doesn't employ actual voices, his use of chorale subjects is interwoven in relationships throughout the entire work.

Amado guided the orchestra through a powerful, convincing performance with romantic brio. Schumann's contrapuntal writing in the opening movement was treated with sensitivity, the strings setting the pace for a magnificently animated, virtuosic affair. In contrast, warm melodies in the Adagio espressivo were never exaggerated and revealed just how sensitive this orchestra is, how capable of grace, dignity and beautiful colors. It was, indeed, a performance Cleve may well have delighted in.

"On a day like today," Cleve once said of the Bay Area, "you look out and see green and blossoms; it's hard not to be grateful for living here. People come thousands of miles just to look at it." Amid the wealth, culture and surge of creative energy in the Silicon Valley, the art of Mozart and Beethoven is alive and well, thanks in large part to the efforts and foundations laid by this devoted American master.

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Supported, in part, by a Cultural Affairs grant from the City of San José