TV REVIEWS : 'Solti at 75'--Excerpts of a Celebration

The title says it all. "Solti at 75: A Celebration" (tonight at 9, Channel 28) is essentially a festive concert, reveling in the triumphant present.

For some, it may be a surprise party, with Placido Domingo conducting and Solti playing piano-- not at the same time. In fact, what you actually see very little of is Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony, the orchestra with which he has spent the last 18 seasons and won 22 of his 26 Grammy awards.

In the hourlong special, taped at Orchestra Hall in Chicago by WTTW, you can hear a fair bit of Solti's conducting, however, in the love duet from Verdi's "Otello," and from the keyboard in Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365.

Solti the pianist proves a responsive partner to Murray Perahia, catching the notes neatly enough. As far as television sonics permit comparison, he sounds brighter and harder than his pearly toned colleague. They work very well as a team, however, in a brisk, purposeful performance.

Barring some disagreement about pitch, the Verdi excerpt is tenderly and gracefully sung by Kiri Te Kanawa and Domingo. Solti makes an active partner of the orchestral part.

But the emotions seem muted and almost ritualistic. The singers hold hands and gaze sweetly at each other, but passion is only politely sketched.

Kenneth Jean, the orchestra's new associate conductor, capably leads the premiere performance of "Campana di Ravello" by John Corigliano, the orchestra's new composer-in-residence. The work is a mini-tone poem, a sly arrangement of "Happy Birthday."

Domingo begins the musical proceedings with the Overture to "Die Fledermaus." He conducts with gusto, big gestures and the appearance of authority, and the orchestra responds with professional brio.

Interwoven are clips of music luminaries wishing Sir Georg a happy birthday--the actual date was back in October--and a brief summary of the conductor's career. He responds to two interview questions, asserting that what is special about the Chicago Symphony is the combination of technical excellence with a passion to be the best and acknowledging intimations of mortality.

The production offers endless views of busy fingers and soulful faces. When it does pull back to a broader perspective, it reveals a large chorus sitting stolidly behind the orchestra. The latter sings not a note for the home audience, which--with the abrupt cut into the opera excerpt--makes one wonder what we are missing from the live celebration.

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