Death of a maestro

George Cleve, who conducted all the major US orchestras and was music director in San Jose until the symphony went bust, has died at the age of 79.

Vienna born, his middle name was Wolfgang.

He told the local newspaper: “Orchestras are dying left and right, and I don’t really know what the end is going to be. 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.’

Full obit here.

California Symphony guest conductor George Cleve rehearses with the symphony at the Holy Trinity Servian Orthodox Church Tuesday, February 25,2003 in Moraga, Calif.  (MAYRA BELTRAN/ Contra Costa Times)

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  • George was in hugely gifted musician. It was surprising that he never quite got the recognition he richly deserved. His talent will be missed.

    • Not “surprising” at all really. The list of musicians who never got the recognition from a large public that they deserved is enormous, a tribute of sorts to the collusion of management agencies, promoters, and critics. To the list a few would be an insult to those many more not named. George Cleve was certainly a member of the club. “Disappointing” is the right word. “Unjust” is another.

    • In my years of being involved with music I’ve learned that there are many extremely fine conductors who you would think will get greater recognition and they never do. Yes, talent, innate ability, basic musicianship and all that matter – but so does personality and the ability to work well with others. There are many, many people who have at least the ability of Dudamel, Rattle and some others. But they lack the exuberance and excitement the better-known bring to the podium. Then there are some conductors who are so rude, nasty, and mean to players that no amount of talent or skill will ever allow then to rise to the top – they are in 2nd and 3rd rate (and worse) orchestras and they can stay there! The list of names is long. I don’t care how good a conductor is with a stick but if you can’t treat players with respect and decency you deserve your lot in life.

  • George was one of the greats. I was very fortunate to work with him for 10 years in his Midsummer Mozart Festival and several other times when he guest-conducted orchestras I’ve been in. No one I know could so effectively make a piece sound both new and completely right – usually by looking more carefully at the score than anyone had before him.

  • I worked with George. He was a bully. He was a very irrational man who could be extremely difficult, going from being capricious in his music making to being downright mean-spirited when singling out someone. Unfortunately, he didn’t pick on poor players because if he had, the San Jose Symphony would have been a top-notch organization, but it was far from it. He didn’t fire poor players, he only chose targets; and it didn’t matter if someone played as well as Heifetz. If he disliked you, that was all that was needed. He went nowhere because he was a nasty person, to put it mildly, and word was out about his difficulties and behavior during earlier, career-making days.
    He had a decent stick technique, but that was all. If he waved his hands and nobody agreed to play, that’s the sound of George Cleve, just like any other “maestro”.
    He could create some good concerts, but he also bombed on Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Mahler. He was not a good choral conductor and frequently left intonation and ensemble problems alone in both chorus and orchestra. I’ve never played a concert where the orchestra just fell apart, but it happened several times there.

    • It’s true that G.C. had trouble with the “Rite of Sprig”, but I saw some very good Mahler him conducing including a fine “DLvdE” with Jessye Norman, and an outstanding Mahler 3 at Flint Center in Cupertino. It “DLvdE”, it wasn’t George’s fault that the tam-tam that the SJSO owned was little more than upright tea tray.

  • I have performed with many excellent conductors in my career, but only a handful of truly inspirational ones. George Cleve was exceptional and inspired one to play well beyond one’s ordinary capabilities. Working Mozart with him was magical; working Beethoven with him was amazing. His kind of talent was rare and will be sorely missed. I also happened to have liked George Cleve very much.

  • Leonid Grin, not George, was the music director for the decade before the San Jose Symphony restructured, although George did occasionally guest-conduct, and his wife was principal flute there. George was music director 72-92. I believe the orchestra went under around 2001-2, about the time I left the Bay Area (I was subbing in the oboe section).

  • Cleve was indeed a prickly guy, but in terms of pure talent, knowledge, inspiration, and vision, he was unsurpassed. George Cleve brought a level of music making to San Jose that the current maestro in nearby San Francisco could never match. Cleve was no more nasty than George Szell or Fritz Reiner, and those musicians who had the courage and patience to work with Cleve were all the better for it.

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