THE CURRENT GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SIR GEORG
Sir Georg Solti was in a surprisingly mellow mood. The celebrated, fabled, feared, revered and occasionally reviled music director of the mighty Chicago Symphony seemed unfazed by the tribulations--some expected and some emphatically unexpected--of the grueling California tour that ends tonight and Monday with concerts at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Last Saturday, he had triumphed over adversity before an audience of 3,000 in San Francisco. When the truck carrying his orchestra’s scores, instruments and formal wardrobe got stranded somewhere in Arizona, the still-tempestuous Americo-British Hungarian opted for heroic improvisation.
He personally took to the keyboard for some chamber music. Then he tended to Mozart and Beethoven with a dauntless ensemble that wore street clothes and played borrowed music on borrowed instruments.
The necessary props and papers did arrive in time for a second, strictly conventional, concert in the Bay City. Before anyone could muster the breath to savor the final cadence, however, the musical wanderers were off to the wilds of Southern California.
If this is Monday it must be Costa Mesa. . . .
The concert in the new Performing Arts Center of Orange County had been a huge success, despite the strangeness of the surroundings, the dangers of unaccustomed acoustics and the absence of an in-house rehearsal. The Chicago orchestra sounded like the great orchestra it is, and the sponsoring Orange County Philharmonic Society mustered an enthusiastic, discerning audience that applauded only in the right places.
Now it was the morning after. Bleary members of the orchestra, billeted in a fancy hotel next door to the arts center in Costa Mesa, exchanged happy post-mortems over breakfast in the coffee shop.
Meanwhile, Solti held critical court in the palatial suite of his own hotel, an even fancier establishment 15 minutes away in Newport Beach.
Solti should have been bleary too. He complained of a sleepless night. No one could blame him if, at 74, he did not command the wiry energy of yore. But the magisterial countenance remained forceful, the tone benign. Perhaps the bravos of the night before still echoed in the maestro’s ears.
“San Francisco ruined me,” he complained. “I don’t have the stamina for this sort of thing anymore.”
Somehow, the words did not ring true.
“I expected the worst of the hall here,” he continued. “But it was amazingly good.”
He admitted to the rigors and the excitement of a trial by fire. Or water.
“We don’t rehearse when we are on a tour like this. There is no time and, perhaps, no necessity. Therefore, the first sounds are always a shock.”
He motioned to the hotel window. “When I began the ‘Tristan’ prelude, it was like jumping into the ocean from the 19th floor. You always hope you will be able to swim. You never know until you try.
“The sound on the stage here is very bright, very resonant. You hear the players very well. At first it is disorienting when you don’t expect such a response. Of course, you don’t know what the people are hearing out front.”
He sighed a fine Hungarian sigh. “Nevertheless, it seemed to go well.”
Most conductors in Solti’s exalted position say they can live very nicely, thank you, without the rigors of the road. As is often the case, Solti isn’t like the others.
“I don’t love touring,” he exclaimed. “I adore it.
“Touring is very important for the orchestra. At home, we know they love us. They applaud. They are proud of us. But they also take us a little bit for granted. It is natural.
“When we play in new places, there is a special electricity, a special stimulation, an eagerness, even a sense of discovery.”
The discovery isn’t always cause for ecstasy.
“Sometimes there are technical or acoustical problems. Everyone was wonderful in San Francisco. I love the city. I could very happily retire there.
“But, the auditorium (Davies Hall) wasn’t ideal. Somehow, it diminished our sound, just the opposite of what happened here. Perhaps the dome above the stage is too high.
“There is something else. I have conducted in European halls where a part of the audience sits behind the orchestra and faces the conductor. I am used to this, but I do not find it pleasant. I feel like I am being observed by a chorus of voyeurs.”
Although Solti expressed nothing but enthusiasm for the reception afforded him and his players here, he did voice certain qualms about the general cultural climate.
“Nothing is easy in these times,” he said. “Bloody TV and movies ruin everything. People don’t want to hear music. They want to sell condoms on TV.”
This somewhat convoluted network of ideas might have benefited from some development. A patrician Solti nod made it clear, however, that the subject was closed.
That shouldn’t imply that Solti avoided controversial issues. It isn’t his style.
Although he talked with satisfaction about an exceptionally long, fruitful, generally triumphant career, he didn’t shirk discussion of an occasional, major failure.
Take, for instance, the “Ring” cycle that brought him belatedly to Bayreuth in 1983. Solti made his mark as a Wagnerian of extraordinary urgency, generosity and passion long ago. He offered much-admired performances of the Wagner canon in Munich, Frankfurt and London, among other locales. His complete recording of the “Ring,” a project that began in the mid-1950s and took seven years to complete, was the first of its kind in history.
In a day when heroically compelling conductors of the ultraromantic repertory are as scarce as condors if not dodos, Solti resembles an old-school anachronism.
Together with Sir Peter Hall, he wanted to bring realism and grandeur back to the “Ring,” and he dared export what was billed as a British perspective to the Wagner shrine. The event promised to be a sensation. It was, for all the wrong reasons.
“I cannot go back to Bayreuth,” he said, his brow furrowing dramatically. “The wounds are too fresh.
“This was the major debacle of my life as a musician. It was a terrible summer. I want to forget it. I never will.
“I had wanted to offer an antidote to Patrice Chereau and to all the fashionable modern versions of the ‘Ring.’ There is nothing wrong with them in principle, though I did find the Chereau version unmusical. It is a matter of taste.
“I thought it was time to return to what Wagner had asked for. I had done modern productions before, been burned before. I approached Bayreuth with great optimism.
“But this time I burned all 20 fingers, and my bridges, too.
“Two things went terribly wrong. First there was the problem of Reiner Goldberg, the tenor who was supposed to sing Siegfried. He had never sung the role before. But he auditioned for me two years ahead. The voice was extraordinary. He really sang, sang beautifully, never barked. I was happy.
“Then, when rehearsals actually began, Peter Hall started sending me worried messages. I was still in London. ‘The tenor doesn’t know the role, can’t remember what he does know from day to day.’ Goldberg turned out to have other, personal, problems as well.
“First we took him out of ‘Goetterdaemmerung.’ Then, after a disastrous dress rehearsal, we had to take him out of ‘Siegfried’ too. It was very sad.
“His last-minute replacement (Manfred Jung) was a very nice man, brave and utterly professional. But he couldn’t give the sort of performance that would carry the cycle, and I had spent so much time working with Goldberg that I had neglected the other singers. It was awful.
“Then, to complicate matters, the stage director and designer, who had a very complicated and I think very valid concept, couldn’t speak German. The Bayreuth staff didn’t speak English.
“The sketches were beautiful, but they didn’t work. They weren’t getting executed properly. Cooperation wasn’t ideal. We sensed an aversion to the English. It was as if we were dumb invaders.
“The fault was mine. I should have been more aware of the problems. I should have foreseen the dangers. It would have helped, too, if the orchestra has been first-rate.
“It would have been hard to succeed with an English ‘Ring’ in Bayreuth even if we had had the right tenor. It would have been hard to succeed with the wrong tenor in Bayreuth even if the English concept had been accepted.
“But an English ‘Ring’ in Bayreuth with the wrong tenor? We were dead from the start.”
He shrugged sadly.
Although most of Solti’s schedule is monopolized by symphonic endeavors these days, he has not abandoned opera altogether. He will soon to return to Covent Garden for Mozart’s “Entfuehrung aus dem Serail,” and he has agreed to conduct a new production of Strauss’ “Frau ohne Schatten” in Salzburg in 1989.
Artists of Solti’s stature are seldom encountered in the pit at James Levine’s Metropolitan Opera. Nevertheless, a return to Lincoln Center is not impossible.
“Jimmy asks me every year. There are feelers. That is all I can say right now.”
Despite the acrimonious memories of 1961, when, citing board interference, he aborted his brief tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Solti continues to receive invitations to conduct here.
“I would like to accept,” he said. “Unfortunately, I can’t. My time in America is limited. I do not want to be away from my daughters in London--they are 13 and 16--for more than 12 weeks. Already that is too much.
“Under the circumstances, I have decided to conduct only the Chicago Symphony in this country. There is one exception. Zubin (Mehta) did a pension fund benefit for us, and I will reciprocate and do one for the New York Philharmonic.”
One intriguing bit of foreign business, however, may lurk on the horizon.
“I would love to take my orchestra at some time to Russia. I watched Horowitz’s Moscow concert on television and was terribly moved. He behaved like a monkey but played miraculously.
“It was wonderful. Even the wrong notes were wonderful.
“The wrong notes actually gave me courage to play the piano again in public. If he is allowed to do that, I thought, maybe I am allowed too.”
It is universally agreed that Solti has only a few rivals on international podiums today. When asked to name them, he bounced the question back to the interviewer.
“You tell me.”
Three names came instantly to mind: Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Carlo Maria Giulini.
“That’s good company,” he agreed.
“I am a great admirer of Karajan. He is brilliant, commands many styles. I know he says terrible things about me, but it doesn’t matter.
“Bernstein is marvelous, magnetic, original. His dancing doesn’t bother me. I just close my eyes.
“Giulini is a great, great conductor. He always admired Toscanini, but Toscanini had one advantage over him: a bigger repertory. We begged Giulini not to go to Los Angeles, to stay in Chicago (where he had long been a principal guest conductor), but he couldn’t refuse. We had a really good working relationship. Our very different approaches complemented each other even in the same repertory.”
Solti volunteered favorable comments about several younger colleagues. He could afford to be generous.
“Claudio Abbado is very good. So is (Daniel) Barenboim. I have never heard (Riccardo) Muti but hear interesting reports.
“Carlos Kleiber is a genius, eccentric perhaps, but a genius. My wife just heard his ‘Otello’ in London. ‘Next to you,’ she told me, ‘I think he is the best.’
“She is a good critic.”
At a time when music directors seem to come and go through revolving doors, Solti can look back on the stability and growth of 18 years in Chicago.
“They have been remarkable years,” he said with an emphatic wave. “It has been a joy. I kept waiting for something unpleasant. It never happened.”
Privately, some players might dispute the last point. One hears piquant rumors in the music world. The official Chicago face, however, continues to smile.
“The orchestra is quite young now,” Solti went on. “There have been many changes. We still stretch each other. It is healthy. Contrary to what many people think, the players don’t like conductors who ask too little.
“At first, things were not so easy between us. It took four or five years for me to feel at home, to feel that this really was my orchestra. Now the rapport is ideal.
“We don’t have to rehearse as other orchestras do. We can achieve more in less time. We understand each other.”
Solti said he intends to stay in Chicago until the 1990-91 season, “if I live that long.”
He intends to be around for the hundredth anniversary of the orchestra. “I want to be part of that. Then I will relinquish. I hope to be invited back as a guest.
“I want to be involved in the choice of my successor. Actually, we are discussing this now. But I think 22 years will be enough.”
And who might that successor be?
Solti shook his head, closed his eyes, pressed a finger to his lips, looked mysterious. The interview was over.