Solti's legacy and the search for excellence Appreciation: Hyperbole aside, renowned conductor excelled at running and promoting an orchestra. As the BSO and others will find, such talent is increasingly rare.

September 13, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Georg Solti's position among the most celebrated conductors of his time can be gauged by a joke that circulated among the world's top orchestras about 15 years ago.

Solti, Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan are seated at a cafe in Vienna, arguing about who is the world's greatest conductor.

"You should have heard my performance of Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis' last month in Chicago," Solti says. "The critics raved and said such a brilliant performance could only have been inspired by God."

"That's nothing," says Bernstein. "When I conducted the 'Missa Solemnis' last week in Amsterdam, God himself rang me up in my hotel room after the performance to thank me."

"Reaaally," says Karajan, looking up from his coffee with a raised eyebrow. "I don't remember having done that."

Solti, who died last week at 84, outlasted both Karajan (1908-89) and Bernstein (1918-90). And if he finished behind both Karajan and Bernstein in the celebrity conductors' sweepstakes, the joke still testifies to Solti's status as one of the three most famous conductors in the final third of the 20th century.

His death leaves the classical music world a much smaller place. The Hungarian-born Solti was the last conductor whose name on a marquee could insure sold-out concert halls. Once the kings of classical music, conductors now take a back seat to superstar soloists.

This is not merely a lack of glamour. A shortage of first-rate conductors has created a seller's market in which prestigious orchestras go cap in hand to offer music directorships to conductors who, only a few years back, would have been happy to have received guest-conducting engagements.

After having been turned down by Christoph Eschenbach and Vladimir Ashkenazy, the San Francisco Symphony finally hired Michael Tilson Thomas. To secure the services of Mariss Jansons, the Pittsburgh Symphony had to participate in a bidding war with half of England's orchestras. The Boston Symphony, which expects Seiji Ozawa to announce his retirement in a few seasons, has been assiduously wooing Britain's brilliant Simon Rattle for several years.

Closer to home, the Baltimore Symphony is now searching for a replacement for David Zinman, who steps down as its music director at the end of this season.

The search committee, composed of orchestra musicians and members of the staff and board, has agreed to keep the specifics of the search confidential, says BSO executive director John Gidwitz. But, he adds, "Over the last 30 years the BSO has been fortunate to have been in the hands of two outstanding conductors, each of whom proved to be the ideal person to lead the orchestra. We hope to do as well again."

Nevertheless, the orchestra has to face the possibility that it might have to choose from a pool of candidates, all of whom may be less qualified and experienced than Zinman and Sergiu Comissiona were when they arrived here.

While the number of good orchestras in the United States has dramatically increased in the last 30 years, the supply of good conductors has not kept pace.

With few exceptions, the great conductors of the past -- almost all European -- learned their trade in the opera house. It seems nearly every small city in Europe once had its own opera company. Aspiring conductors started as rehearsal pianists, became assistant conductors and then, if they were good enough, achieved permanent posts at small houses, from which they hoped to work their way to bigger ones and eventually achieve enough prominence to conduct symphony concerts.

Solti's was a typical case. He started as a vocal coach and an accompanist at the Budapest Opera and at the Salzburg Festival in the 1930s. After waiting out World War II in neutral Switzerland, he began conducting at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where he made enough of a mark to secure a more prominent post in Frankfurt in 1952. He took over at London's Covent Garden in 1961 and, finally, was appointed music director of the Chicago Symphony in 1969. It was only then -- when he was 57 -- that Solti began to acquire superstar status.

In their first year together, the Solti-Chicago combination conquered New York's Carnegie Hall. Europe fell the following year, and the orchestra was rewarded with a parade down State Street upon its return. Even that was not enough for Solti, who acted as if he believed that he had raised not only the orchestra but the city itself to greatness.

"Chicago should erect a statue to me," he said.

Eventually, he was honored with a bust in Lincoln Park -- and that is probably all he deserved. For if Solti was among the last conductors who built his career in the old way, he was also (along with Bernstein and Karajan) one of the first to achieve fame in the new way -- through recordings, clever marketing and chutzpah. He was the prototype of the peripatetic modern conductor, too busy with his international career to sink roots into the city in which he is music director.

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