2008 Festival Review

Cleve ignites Mozart festival opening concert

By Georgia Rowe for the Mercury News
July 20, 2008

Mozart's Symphony No. 38 in D major, "Prague," has prompted critics to reach for superlatives since its inaugural performance. Franz Niemetschek, the composer's first biographer, was so moved by the work's 1787 premiere, he declared it "a real masterpiece of instrumental composition . . . played with great Úlan and fire, so that the very soul is carried to sublime heights."

Those words from more than two centuries ago might just as well have described Thursday's opening concert of this year's Midsummer Mozart Festival.

Festival founder and music director George Cleve capped a winning program at Mission Santa Clara with a dynamic performance of the "Prague" symphony, one suffused with the spirit and insight that have made him one of the music world's most celebrated Mozart conductors. If there's a secret to the success of this annual all-Mozart bash - now in its 34th season - it's Cleve's ability to bring to life not just the music, but the wit and vibrant humanity of its composer.

Thursday's program, which repeats Sunday night in Berkeley, also included fine performances of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, the Oboe Concerto in C major and the Divertimento in D major.

Yet it was "Prague" that clearly demonstrated why Cleve and his orchestra continue to set the gold standard for Mozart performances among Bay Area orchestras. From the great chords that introduce the first movement, to the gripping tutti passages of the finale, Cleve mined the score for vast reserves of color and drama. The conductor, who spends much of the year leading opera performances, elicited sound that was massive, cohesive and, yes, operatic.

Which is not to say that the performance overlooked nuance. Every detail was in place: The sharply etched figures for violins, the soaring parts for woodwinds and bold contributions from the brass.

But Cleve knows how to mold the score into something greater than the sum of its parts, and that was the effect here - monumental and deeply profound. It certainly was not the polite, decorative Mozart of garden parties and shopping malls.

With pianist Jon Nakamatsu as soloist, Cleve also achieved excellent results in the Piano Concerto No. 23. This is one of Mozart's most frequently performed concertos, but the conductor and his soloist made it sound newly minted. Nakamatsu approached the opening allegro with his customary blend of agility and flair, dashing off even the most difficult passagework with elegant precision, while the orchestra lent the movement its essentially sunny hue.

Things turn darker in the slow central movement, where Mozart plunges into the key of F-sharp minor; the soloist introduces a pensive theme echoed by woodwinds, offset by horns and strings. Cleve conducted with authority, and Nakamatsu played with exquisite poise. The finale, buoyed by Cleve's urgent direction, sounded especially vivacious.

The Oboe Concerto featured Laura Griffiths, principal oboist of the San Francisco Ballet and former principal of the Cleveland Orchestra. She's a confident player, and she gave an outstanding performance, spinning out Mozart's long, lyrical solo lines with beautifully placed emphasis (and seemingly endless supplies of breath).

The outer movements were cheerful and sprightly. But it was the central adagio - led with great delicacy by Cleve and played with glowing tenderness by Griffiths - that made this performance memorable.

The program opened with a luminous, luxuriant reading of the Divertimento. Here, as with the longer works, Cleve demonstrated why Mozart still matters.

The Midsummer Mozart Festival continues through ...