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August 28, 2015

George Cleve, San Jose Symphony conductor, dead at 79

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
George Cleve, the Austrian-born conductor who led the old San Jose Symphony for two decades and directed the Midsummer Mozart Festival for more than 40 years, died Thursday morning at his home in Berkeley. He was 79.

A powerful musical force in the Bay Area, and a man of mercurial temperament, he had battled cancer and had briefly been on hospice care.

"He had a bit of a bad-boy image, the enfant terrible, and wasn't always the gentlest soul, but he was about making great music, and the musicians, to a one, held him in highest regard," said Andrew Bales, president of Symphony Silicon Valley. Cleve was to have conducted the orchestra's opening program, Oct. 3-4 at the California Theatre.

Bearded and shaggy-haired, Cleve was widely admired for his conducting of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, as well as the French repertory. He would walk on stage, lift his arms and, with an absolute minimum of gestures, bring forth delicate streams of music from an orchestra: "He would wiggle an eyebrow and the sound would change," Bales said.

In 2012, pianist Peter Serkin said, "I think he's one of the great conductors." Performing with Cleve, he said, "one gets swept away by the commitment and the energy that he brings to it."

Over the course of his career, Cleve conducted many celebrated orchestras: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra. He conducted Stravinsky's "Firebird" with the New York City Ballet; Brahms with the Russian National Orchestra in Moscow; Tchaikovsky with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. Also an opera devotee, he led productions at Opera San Jose and San Francisco Opera.

He understood the struggles of the modern orchestra, including those of his beloved San Jose Symphony which he led from 1972-92, and which shut its doors in 2001. (Symphony Silicon Valley replaced it as the South Bay's symphony orchestra the following year, inheriting many of its musicians.)

"Orchestras are dying left and right, and I don't really know what the end is going to be," he said in an interview with the Mercury News in 2003. "I'm a believer that people will ultimately realize that they need the arts. It's not just a luxury at all. I think it's an absolute spiritual necessity to have the arts, and music in particular, because it's such a consoling, nurturing, international way of communicating."

Born in Vienna in 1936, Cleve -- whose middle name was Wolfgang, as in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart -- spent most of his youth in New York City. His Aunt Fanny, a soprano who sang with Richard Strauss in Germany and Austria, took him to his first opera in the late 1940s. It was Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" at the Juilliard School.

Cleve studied for 10 years with conductor Pierre Monteux, famous for his command of Debussy and Stravinsky, and a direct link back to Brahms. It was Monteux who brought about Cleve's professional debut, recommending him as an emergency replacement for a program at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in 1960.

His long tenure as conductor and music director of the San Jose Symphony was a golden age for the orchestra, which played mountains of repertory under its ambitious maestro. Scores of soloists included Nathan Milstein, Isaac Stern, Jessye Norman and jazz pianist Bill Evans, a friend of Cleve's from their student days in New York.

Notorious for his moods and angry outbursts during rehearsals, Cleve could offend his players. Gilda Mazzanti, a violinist, once said, "There were many pieces that we played with clenched teeth; if you only knew what we sometimes went through."

Wendell Rider, the orchestra's principal horn during those years, agreed that Cleve "was over the edge at times. But as far as the conducting -- it was inspiring," he said Thursday. "There was always a commitment to finding the deepest meaning of the piece. He had that channel going.

"Those were the best years of my playing career."

Cleve last month completed his 41st season leading the Midsummer Mozart Festival, which he founded in 1974 with Rider and Robert Hubbard and took to all corners of the Bay Area.

In recent years, he returned to San Jose as a regular guest conductor with Symphony Silicon Valley. Cleve had mellowed and the musicians welcomed him back, performing many programs of elegant Mozart and powerful Brahms. Audiences loved him; the enfant terrible had morphed into a grand old man.

"People will more and more take refuge in the concert hall, " Cleve predicted in the 2003 interview, "not unlike the way they seek out houses of worship. It's a different kind of solace that people get from music. I was brought up in the Jewish faith, and I identify very strongly with that. But if I had to say what my religion was, I think my first impulse would be to say 'music.'"

Cleve is survived by his wife, flutist Maria Tamburrino. They married in 1986.

He also is survived by his son Jeremiah Wiggins and daughter-in-law Sheila Tapia, both actors in New York, and their daughter Isabella.

Symphony Silicon Valley's Oct. 3-4 program will be dedicated to Cleve's memory, Bales said. David Amado will conduct.

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