All-star Solti tribute proves a rich and exhilarating ride

Sun Oct 21, 2012 at 10:51 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Sir Georg Solti

It was a most exhilarating birthday bash.

The gifts, an assortment of eight musical offerings, were elegantly presented and thoughtfully chosen. There were heart-felt tributes from appreciative colleagues. The pacing was brisk, and the party wrapped up with an inspired bit of goofiness.

Sunday was the 100th birthday of Sir Georg Solti, one of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s most charismatic music directors, who died in 1997 at age 84. Artistic head of the CSO from 1969 to 1991, he took the orchestra to the heights of international fame with his combination of white-hot intensity and preternatural obsession with technical precision.

On Sunday afternoon, one of Solti’s pet projects, the World Orchestra for Peace, took the stage at Symphony Center under the baton of superstar Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. Created in 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, the ensemble includes musicians from 60 orchestra around the world including the CSO, Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw, the Paris Opera Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera and Gergiev’s own Maryinsky Theatre Symphony.

Lady Valerie Solti, Solti’s widow, provided lively, brief commentary during the two-hour program of works by Mozart, Verdi, Richard Strauss, Mahler and Bartok. Each of the eight pieces highlighted a facet of Solti’s career, from his decades as a leading opera conductor in Munich, Frankfurt and London to his personal relationship with Strauss and Bartok as well as his towering achievements with the CSO as a Mahler conductor. Two artists whose careers Solti fostered, Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and German bass Rene Pape, performed, along with young artists from the Solti Accademia, which is based in Italy, and the Solti Foundation U.S.

Pape is no stranger to Chicago, first appearing under Solti’s baton with the CSO in Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons in 1992 and later as a welcome guest at Lyric Opera in roles ranging from King Marke in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 2000 to Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust in 2009. On Sunday afternoon his reading of “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute combined noble stateliness and deeply felt sincerity.

Gheorghiu has been rather less welcome in Chicago, having been fired from Lyric’s production of La Boheme in 2007 after missing a majority of rehearsals. She brought a sumptuous soprano and ardent passion to her reading of Violetta’s anguished “Teneste la promessa…Addio del passato” from Verdi’s La traviata. In the famously dulcet duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, she was a comically slippery object of Pape’s cynical affections.

Four young alumni from the Solti Accademia—Armenian soprano Tereza Gevorgyan, Swedish mezzo-soprano Matilda Paulsson, Mexican tenor Roberto Ortiz and British baritone Ross Ramgobin—found compelling urgency in the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Cristian Macelaru, a winner of the Solti Foundation U.S. Conductor’s Award who stepped in for an ailing Pierre Boulez during CSO concerts last February, deftly shaped the delicate balance between the orchestra and singers.

Gergiev drew impassioned, precise playing from the ensemble in a sprightly reading of the Overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Strauss’s exuberant tone poem, Don Juan, and the hushed Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No 5. Solti had a special place in his heart for Bartok, a fellow Hungarian, and the orchestra’s performance of the composer’s masterful Concerto for Orchestra, a CSO specialty under Solti’s baton, was full of color and drama.
The concert closed with a rousing Stars and Stripes Forever, the Sousa march, Lady Solti reminded us, that Solti conducted with the CSO in January 1986 to celebrate the Chicago Bears Super Bowl appearance.

Gergiev and his players ripped into the piece like a Texas college marching band swaggering across the football field during half time. The flutes and the brass stood as they tootled through their featured turns. At one point a few of the cellists—members of orchestras in Budapest, Berlin, London, Paris and Vienna as well as the U. S., spun their instruments like giddy high schoolers. It was a fitting finale to a birthday party for one of the 20th century’s finest conductors, a man who also knew how to have a good time.

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