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A Quiet End for a Sonic Warrior

Commentary: For better or worse, Sir Georg Solti, the last really big star conductor of his generation, always did things his own way.


It was one hell of a Friday. The world readied itself for Princess Diana's funeral. Mother Teresa died.

This was not the kind of day one expected Sir Georg Solti to die. The famed conductor was drawn to the limelight, and he did not like it stolen from him. He once told Chicago it should erect a public statue to him--and the city did! And he had become such a noted figure in classical music--the last really big star conductor of his generation--that no less than the passing of a beloved princess or a near-saint could eclipse his.

Nor was it in character for him to die peacefully in his sleep while on vacation in Antibes, France. The hyper-tense conductor gave the impression of never slowing down for a minute. Plans for his 85th birthday on Oct. 25 included the publication of his autobiography, the release of his latest opera recording, "Don Giovanni," and a remastering of his most famous recording, Wagner's "Ring" cycle. Four days after his birthday, he expected to conduct his 1,000th concert with the Chicago Symphony, which he headed for 22 years until 1991 when he became its music director laureate.

Indeed, despite some talk of a recent mellowing, Solti still acted the ferocious warrior on the podium. He could still offer cutting remarks in interviews. He still had that glint in his eye. He still appeared as impatient and imperious as ever. Bursting a blood vessel at the climax of a Bruckner symphony or mortally wounding himself with his baton would have been a more characteristic death.

Much separated Solti from other conductors, and his like won't be seen again. He was the last of the truly autocratic conductors. He was the product of a cutthroat schooling in Budapest in the '20s and an apprenticeship at the Salzburg Festival in the '30s. And he had to win not just musical battles. The first Jew to conduct the Budapest Opera since Mahler, he also fought anti-Semitism in Hungary.

On March 11, 1938, he got his first big break, conducting "The Marriage of Figaro" at the Salzburg Festival. But it happened to be the day of the Anschluss, the day Hitler marched into Vienna. Most of his friends, he later said, left in panic at intermission. He spent the war in Switzerland after America refused him a visa.

That terrible day and its repercussions surely had a lasting effect on the young conductor. Solti never seemed to get over his bitterness toward America. For all the glory he brought to the Chicago Symphony, and it to him, Solti never lived in the city or entered into its life. His Chicago was of hotel and concert hall, his home was London.

That also possibly explains Solti's behavior toward Los Angeles. He was appointed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1961. But when the orchestra's board of directors then made Zubin Mehta the assistant conductor, without consulting Solti, he angrily resigned before ever assuming his post. He would not have his authority challenged, and he would not share the limelight with a dashing 25-year-old assistant, who, he astutely sensed, was highly favored by the powerful board chair, Dorothy Chandler.

Solti, however, might have also sensed that Los Angeles wasn't right for him, or he for it. The Philharmonic needed a music director who would work hard not only with the musicians but who would become part of the city, as Mehta did. Solti needed his own kind of prominence. He turned to London, instead, and accepted an offer to head the Royal Opera, and he became famous for his opera recordings, often with the greatest singers of the day. That could not have happened in then-operaless L.A.

Solti had his harsh critics, and I must admit that I was one of them. I did not like his style of musicianship or his arrogant public persona. But it is nonetheless impossible not to acknowledge his accomplishments.

His ability to generate powerful, focused, brilliant sound from an orchestra took the breath away. It was an amazing experience in the concert hall (and nearly as evident on his high-tech recordings as well)--the sensation of pure sonic energy. One might complain it gave the listener no room to personally embrace a work. But, boy, was it thrilling. And, boy, did it make music seem new.

But nothing stays new for long. What was so gleaming in Solti's heyday of the '60s and '70s has already come to feel a little dated. But Solti will certainly be remembered by a great many listeners for first alerting them to the glories of Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss.

What his ultimate reputation will be, however, is harder to say. Fate and history play tricks. Not only was Solti's death overshadowed by the more famous and admired Friday, he will now evermore be forced to share the limelight on music calendars with a composer who had represented Solti's exact, ego-less, opposite. Sir Georg Solti died on the 85th birthday of John Cage.

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