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Masters of the Podium: A Brief Biography of Georg Solti

by Paul Siegel

posted in Arts and Entertainment

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Georg Solti [1912-1997] is another in a long line of Eastern European conductors who escaped the rise of anti-Semitism prior to WWII and made for himself a brilliant career in the West. Solti was born in Hungary and studied the piano during his teen years before deciding that conducting offered a better path to professional musicianship. He learned his craft by studying with such luminaries as Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály. He debuted on the podium at the Budapest Opera at the age of 26 by conducting a performance of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. Solti fled to Switzerland the following year [1939], where he remained throughout the war. He was then invited to accept the post of music director for the Bavarian State Opera and spent most of the 1950s leading various opera companies throughout Europe.
In 1961, Solti began a ten-year post as music director of The Royal Opera in London after first accepting and then abruptly resigning a similar position for the Los Angeles Philharmonic earlier the same year. However, it was his next position -- music director for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) -- that made him one of the most respected conductors during the latter half of the 20th century. From 1969 through 1991, Solti led the CSO and appeared in more than 900 performances with that ensemble. He encouraged the organization to take its first tour of Europe [1971] and was the driving force behind making the CSO one of the most recorded orchestras in the world, thanks to his close relationship with producers at Decca Records. Solti has won more Grammy Awards (31) than any other person -- including a Lifetime Achievement Award -- and his remarkable discography includes the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler. His recording for Decca of the Verdi opera Otello features Luciano Pavarotti, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Leo Nucci in the roles of Otello, Desdemona, and Iago respectively, and it is widely considered to be the finest version of this work produced in the past 30 years.
Solti became a naturalized British subject in 1972 and was given an honorary knighthood (KBE), which entitled him to be henceforth known as Sir Georg Solti. Despite his official departure from the CSO in 1991, the orchestra's management named him Music Director Laureate and welcomed him back regularly for various programs. Solti's tributes include honorary doctor of music degrees from Oxford, Yale, Harvard, DePaul University [Chicago], and the Eastman School of Music. He was chosen to be a Kennedy Center honoree in 1993.
Among Solti's lesser-known albeit memorable accomplishments involved participating in a 1991 BBC television series alongside actor/comedian Dudley Moore, who was also an accomplished pianist. The program, titled simply "Orchestra!" explained the various instrument groupings to a public generally unfamiliar with the inner workings of a major symphonic ensemble. Each show covered a different section -- strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion -- plus a wide selection of well-known orchestral masterpieces, performed by a talented group of young musicians brought together especially for this series.
Solti died suddenly of a heart attack less than six weeks before his 85th birthday, which was to have marked his one-thousandth performance with the Chicago Symphony. A memorial concert a year later by the London Philharmonic, held in the city's Royal Albert Hall and attracting such musical luminaries as conductor Zubin Mehta, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and soprano Angela Gheorghiu, raised a significant sum for the Solti Foundation, whose mission involves the promotion of musical education among young people worldwide. Solti's ashes reside today in Budapest, interred alongside the grave of composer Bartók.
In the first video clip that accompanies this article, Solti conducts the CSO in Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8 ("Unfinished"). In the second clip, Solti and Dudley Moore discuss baroque music and Sir Georg conducts his student orchestra in J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 while also playing the harpsichord.
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