George Cleve dies at 79; conductor who channeled Mozart

George Cleve dies at 79; conductor who channeled Mozart
Conductor George Cleve was cofounder of the Midsummer Mozart Festival. (Norbert Photography)

One of George Cleve's final concert appearances also was one of the most memorable.

Two stagehands had to help him to the podium. They gingerly lowered him into his seat, the audience and the orchestra rapt. Even with his suffer-no-fools reputation, he was no longer the formidable figure he had once been — until he picked up the baton.


"And then suddenly, as if a switch had been thrown somewhere, the prospect of leading Mozart's music seemed to electrify Cleve's entire stage presence," San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman wrote in his review of the July 16 performance at Stanford University.

"He sat up erect and firm, gave the downbeat, and — pow! — launched into a superbly dynamic account of the overture to Mozart's one-act opera 'The Impresario.'"

Kosman called Cleve's performance at the Midsummer Mozart Festival "one of the most touching and inspiring demonstrations of personal determination I've ever witnessed at a musical event."

Cleve, a conductor who was best known as one of Mozart's foremost interpreters, died Aug. 27 at his home in Berkeley. He was 79.

He had liver cancer, according to his wife, Maria Tamburrino.

Cleve cofounded the Midsummer Mozart Festival in 1974. He directed the San Jose Symphony from 1972 to 1992, a period in which its budget soared from $200,000 to nearly $5 million. When the orchestra filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003, Cleve likened it to a death in the family.

Cleve also was a guest conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic and orchestras across the U.S. and abroad, from Singapore to Salzburg.

"He was unsurpassed in being able to get an orchestra to play precisely together simply by what he was doing physically," recalled Robert Levine, principal violist at the Milwaukee Symphony and a player at the Midsummer Mozart Festival in its early years.

"His basic technique was very economical; very little movement of the torso or head and almost no stepping around on the podium," Levine said in a reminiscence on, a website for orchestra musicians. "If something wasn't economical, it really caught the orchestra's attention. Those extra gestures, when they came, were remarkably expressive."

In 1978, Cleve was severely burned in a house fire. After being hospitalized for several months, he painfully took the podium as his festival's orchestra rehearsed Mozart's Symphony No. 34 in C.

"He was wrapped up in pressure bandages and the movement of his hands was confined to a box about one foot by one foot by one foot," Levine wrote. "It didn't matter; that was enough for George to convey all that was necessary. I've never seen a conductor do so much with so little apparent effort."

While he conducted works by a wide range of composers, Cleve had a particular affinity for Mozart. He was born in Vienna, where Mozart wrote some of his most important pieces and died, at 35, in 1791. Cleve's middle name was the same as Mozart's first: Wolfgang.

More important, Mozart's music suited Cleve's exacting nature.

Tamburrino, Cleve's wife since 1986, sensed it when she was principal flutist in the San Jose Symphony.


"One has no place to hide in Mozart," she told the San Jose Mercury in 2001. "Either it is perfect, or forget it. But George is never intimidated by Mozart. He knows just what to do."

Born in Vienna on July 8, 1936, Cleve grew up in a family of intellectuals and musicians. His father Felix was a scholar of pre-Socratic philosophy and a music and literary critic for Vienna newspapers. His Aunt Fanny was an operatic soprano who sang in Germany and Austria.

Fleeing Nazi rule, the family moved to Budapest, then Italy, and finally New York, where Cleve grew up. He attended the city's High School of Music and Art, and Mannes College of Music.

He studied with Leonard Bernstein, George Szell and Pierre Monteux, and conducted symphony orchestras in Iceland and Winnipeg, Canada, before moving to Berkeley in 1970.

He ran a classical music show on the progressive public radio station KPFA and conducted the Berkeley Free Orchestra, a group of enthusiastic amateurs.

Sept. 3, 2:28 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said that George Cleve had a classical music show on radio station KPFK. The show was on KPFA.

With horn player Wendell Rider and oboist Robert Hubbard, he founded the Midsummer Mozart Festival after he conducted Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" for San Francisco's Spring Opera Theater.

In interviews, he emphasized that he was more of a Mozart "enthusiast" than a Mozart specialist. He enjoyed Mahler, Sibelius and many others.

"Sometimes all that perfection can be a bit much," he once joked.

In addition to his wife Maria Tamburrino, Cleve is survived by a son, Jeremiah Wiggins, and a granddaughter.