Longtime music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1969-1992) died on September 5, 1997, while vacationing in southern France.
The 84 year-old Solti, who remained the Orchestra's music director laureate after stepping down as music director after 22 years, was scheduled to conduct his 1,000th concert with the CSO, a date which now will be a memorial for a man who received more Grammy awards - 32, including a special Grammy for lifetime achievement - than any other artist, classical or popular.
The eminent Solti was widely regarded - especially after the death of rival Herbert von Karajan - as the world's greatest conductor. When Solti assumed the reins of the CSO, it was, as he said, "the greatest provincial orchestra in the world." After tours of Europe and America, the word "provincial" had definitely been dropped.
Solti was born in Budapest, Hungary on October 21, 1912. Trained as a concert pianist, the prodigy began giving concerts in his hometown at the age of 12. It was not until twelve years later that he made his operatic directorial debut. Because of Nazi anti-Semitism in Hungary and Austria, Solti's first public conducting would be his only appearance for eight more years. That year also marked the beginning of an exile that would last until 1978, when he returned to his homeland, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.
The Jewish Solti moved to Switzerland during the early '40s where in 1942 he won his first major music prize: the International Piano Competition in Geneva. Interestingly, despite his fame on this continent, Solti did not make his piano debut until nearly 45 years later in an impromtu chamber concert in San Francisco when the orchestra's equipment truck was delayed.
After the war, Solti was music director of the Munich and Frankfurt operas, before making his American conducting debut in 1953 with the San Francisco Opera. The next year, he first led the CSO at Ravinia. His first date with the Lyric Opera of Chicago was in 1956.
Solti was music director of London's Royal Opera, Covent Garden from 1961-1971. During his tenure there, Solti returned the theater to its former glory, as one of the world's finest opera houses. For his labors, Solti was knighted by the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth. In 1969 (after more than five years of wooing), Solti became the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's ninth music director, succeeding Jean Martinon. In 1972, he was named music director of L'Orchestre de Paris (he handed the reins over to Daniel Barenboim three years later), and in 1979 he became principal conductor and artistic of the London Philharmonic (he became conductor emeritus in 1983).
Best-known as a specialist in late Romantic music (especially Germany), his repertory ranged from Bach to the most modern. While certainly not avant-garde, Solti was always open-minded about his music, adding pieces (both new and old) to his repertory each year. As a youngster, Solti even turned pages for the world premiere of Bela Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (he had studied the piano with Bartok, as well as with Kodaly and Leo Weiner).
Despite his long association with the city (Solti was music director of the CSO longer than anyone other than Frederick Stock) and his influence in marketing the midwest's musical treasure to Europe, Solti never lived in Chicago. While in town, he stayed in a suite at the Mayfair Regent and was chauffered to Orchestra Hall. Solti worked in Chicago and then returned to Europe when his job was done.
A plaque now adorns the Budapest house where Solti grew up. The conductor's ashes were interred in Budapest next to Bartok's grave.
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