The most evident centennial being celebrated in Chicago right now is that of Poetry Magazine. You can’t walk anywhere in the Loop and miss the lightpole banners, streetside bulletin boards and even poets reading work from buried loudspeakers along State Street. I salute Poetry founder Harriet Monroe’s cultural achievement of 1912, especially when Chicago was more popularly known at the time as “Hogbutcher for the World.”
This Sunday, Chicago marks another centennial honoring one of the greatest and enduring musical conductors of the 20th Century, Sir Georg Solti. Fifteen
years after his untimely death, members of the Chicago Symphony will join many other first-chair musicians from top international orchestras in a World Concert for Peace. This was an orchestra Solti founded in 1995 because he believed in the “unique strength of music could be as ambassador for peace.” The concert will be led by Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev and feature many headline soloists from the worlds of opera and classical music.
For details about Solti and his years with Chicago, go to a special Chicago Symphony website, Solti at 100, www.cso.org/solti100. An excellent biography of Solti and his career can also be found on Wikipedia. Rather than repeat the known facts of his illustrious career with leading orchestras as well as the Chicago Symphony from 1969 to 1991 (conductor laureate until 1997), I will share personal memories of this great musician as my contribution to the occasion.
While I attended the University of Chicago in 1966-67, I would usually attend Friday afternoon concerts. The orchestra was nearly a decade removed from its glory days under Fritz Reiner and the new leader was Jean Martinon. The orchestra sounded fine but a sense of excitement was missing. I only read about Solti’s appointment in 1969 since I had graduated in 1968 and moved back to New York City.
My first chance to hear the orchestra came in December, 1972 during the orchestra’s appearance at Carnegie Hall. Solti was 60 at the time but his intensity on the podium belied his age. I remember being thrilled at what I was hearing and so were other members of the audience at intermission. When the orchestra sounded the final note of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, I will never forget the sight of patrons in the upper balcony of Carnegie casting program confetti down on the audience below. Orchestra members gazed up at the spectacle (which I have only witnessed one other time) and smiled.
That was the beginning of Chicago’s conquest of the New York music world! For several years, I held a box seat subscription to the symphony’s twice yearly appearances. And when I moved back to Chicago in 1977, I kept my box seat and always scheduled my semi-annual business trips to New York to coincide with the orchestra’s appearances. Those were such memorable and musically uplifting evenings! The orchestra always sounded better in Carnegie’s warm acoustics than at home.
Then, around 1991, Solti conducted a great performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass with an all-star cast of Annie Sophie von Otter, Felicity Lott and Siegfried Jerusalem. I was very moved by Solti’s reading (always highly energetic and musically revelatory ) and went to meet him afterwards in the conductor’s Green Room. He was seated, his shirt open and obviously spent following the performance.
I approached and told him how moved I was by the concert. He thanked me and I then offered a token gift of my appreciation–a pencil with the orchestra’s name on the side. He held it in his hand and said, “Yes, this is my orchestra,” reflecting a self-evident fact, not realizing my intent.
As I continued to stand there, he appeared puzzled and repeated the fact of it being his orchestra. Finally, he asked, in his Hungarian accent, “Why you give me this?” I told him that I had presented a similar gift to each soloist. With tears welling in my eyes, I replied, “Because I have nothing else I can give.” Waiting a few seconds, he answered, “In that case, I will keep it.” That moment revealed the humanity and big heart of the man, a musician who remains one of the three greatest conductors in my experience–Solti, Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado.
If you cannot attend the concert, the next time you are around Symphony Center, visit his memorial inside the southeast corner of Grant Park at Jackson where you will find a bust of Solti (not a good likeness, unfortunately) and pay your respects to this man who put the Chicago Symphony on the map worldwide. (The orchestra’s first European tour under Solti resulted in a ticker tape parade down LaSalle St. and set the orchestra’s present reputation). Today’s orchestra rests on the shoulders of this renowned musician whose legacy will only grow greater with time.