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Solti's Last Stand


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It is Thursday night and I am in my seat in the middle of row A. It is the last subscription concert with Sir Georg at the helm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It is Solti's last stand.

My seat is considered the worst in the hall, but I sit there every Thursday night. It is the seat I requested when I subscribed two years ago. Front row, center, up against the stage, directly under the conductor. I can read the program during the performance from my seat without any problem because it is as brightly lit as the stage. My neck is used to the pressure of looking up, and I think my seat is the best--because of what I see and hear.

For instance, I know that Margaret Hillis wears only knee-high nylons under her long, black chorus-conducting dress. I know which string musicians wear heavy dark socks, and which ones wear thin silk ones, and which ones wear mismatched ones. I know which orchestra members get married or divorced, because I can see wedding bands appear and disappear. I can tell which conductors wear dickeys under their white coat and tails, because starch makes them stick out from their torsos.

Conductors' beads of sweat have rained down on me and made me nauseous. Broken bow strings have landed in my hair like discarded dental floss. I have seen and heard violinists' "rolling eye" conversations with each other. And I have heard some musicians quietly berate themselves for missing a note or flubbing a turn of the page. I know when they eat cough drops.

Once a violinist leaned over after the first piece, when it appeared her colleagues were getting up and leaving the stage. "Is it time for intermission already?" she asked me. I pointed out that it was, according to the program, although the orchestra had played for only 10 or 15 minutes.

I know the chairs, the music stands, and the instruments as well as the furniture in my living room. I see the face of every conductor who turns and bows. Their cheeks fall forward above me, and I see their faces the same way their lovers do.

On the night of Solti's last stand, the orchestra looks adoringly at him. He turns and bows his head at the audience before he leads Sir Michael Tippet's Byzantium and Mahler's Fifth Symphony. His dark-circled eyes and his sallow green complexion recede into thin cheeks, small pieces of facial skin that move sharply forward and down.

Solti's conducting is the ultimate pantomime. From behind him and beneath him, from my seat in row A, Sir Georg plays nothing if not an enormous game of charades. With white tie and tails, holding his small white baton, on his last Thursday night as musical director of the CSO--before he took four curtain calls and closed his score-- this is how Sir Georg Solti looked from the middle of the front row at Orchestra Hall:

Like a suburban guy starting his power mower; like an umpire waiting for the pitch; like a catcher shaking off the sign; like a spoiled child demanding his way, just before he has a tantrum; like a juvenile delinquent defying some symbol of authority; like a soldier at attention; like a young bridegroom about to walk down the aisle; like a boxer darting around his opponent, trying to fake him out and avoid the punch; like a gang member walking down an alley to a rumble; like a mad artist throwing globs of paint on a canvas in his studio; like a swashbuckler in the heat of a duel.

Like the Wicked Witch of the West threatening Dorothy; like my grandmother (a Solti look-alike) one night in 1959 when she got mad at me for spreading it around the neighborhood that my friend was a whore; like a prissy English schoolmaster; like a man attacking another man who's made a pass at his wife; like a chimpanzee walking aimlessly around the Great Ape House; like someone doing t'ai chi; like a sinister character in a silent movie overplaying his role.

Like a cop backing away from an unsolvable domestic dispute; like a trespasser backing away from a vicious dog; like a teenage boy arriving to pick up his prom date; like the male lead in a 40s musical number; like a virile young Olympic diver standing on the edge of a diving board, arms outstretched, just before a very dangerous and complicated dive.

Like a drunk swaggering home from a corner tavern; like a rigid guard at Buckingham Palace; like a character in an opera doubling over with unrequited love; like someone reading a rare copy of the Constitution atop an expensive antique bookstand in a rare-book reading room; like a baker decorating a very tall wedding cake; like a guy at a company picnic trying to get a tablecloth down in a windy forest preserve; like an insulting drunk suddenly sobering up after being threatened by someone he's insulted.

Like a swishy hairdresser standing back to peruse his client's new 'do; like a father getting ready to give his child a talking to, and maybe a spanking; like an old man with a sore hip; like a priest with his hands over the head of his congregation, giving them a blessing; like a high school biology teacher calling on the kid in the back row with the answer; like a guy with a stomachache who might throw up; like a guy signing a check at a teller's window; like a man with a sudden pain in the groin; like a man trying to make someone understand something in a foreign language; like a guy arguing with his neighbor about who's responsible for the bushes between their yards; like a guy arguing with his neighbor about something more serious; like a guy typing a letter to his neighbor to warn him of a lawsuit.

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