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The Age of Solti


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Chicago Symphony Orchestra

September 16

Conductors are renowned for their longevity. Many of them seem to come fully into their own at an age when other folk are ready to retire, and then flourish long after their contemporaries are languishing in nursing homes or dead. Even the licentious Leonard Bernstein, who almost seemed to have a death wish, made it to 72. Sir Georg Solti, born in 1912, has officially slowed down, but he's still taking on heavy new projects at a rate that would stun many people half his age. He no longer strides to the podium with effortless ease, but he still bounces along--and once there he's as hyperenergetic as ever.

What gives conductors their superhuman stamina? Some of it's the aerobic quality of their work--a two-hour concert or three-hour opera exercises all the major muscle groups. More of it's the continued intellectual activity of reviewing scores and, in the case of the better conductors, rethinking their interpretations. Science confirms that such things are important to attaining a vigorous old age. Science is silent about a couple of other factors that almost certainly have a bearing: the ego kick of having large numbers of musicians obey your every eyebrow twitch, and the working out of hostilities through insulting large numbers of musicians and issuing occasional ultimatums to administrators and record-company executives.

Solti, undoubtedly blessed by nature with a healthy constitution in the first place, has maintained his mental vigor by taking new looks at music he recorded decades ago--as with the upcoming concert and recording project of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg--and by taking a serious look at composers he largely neglected in the past. One of those is Dmitry Shostakovich, whose music Solti has lately given considerable attention. It's a good fit. Shostakovich's music is filled with acerbic wit, rich orchestrations, melodic inventions, and some bombast--all things Solti understands.

At first glance Shostakovich's Symphony no. 1 seems an odd choice for a gala opening-night performance. Written in 1925, when the composer was 18, it's a worthy piece of the repertoire--it passes the acid test of youthful works: "Would we care about this thing if he hadn't gone on to write X, Y, and Z?" But it's hardly the stunner one would expect on an evening when a red carpet has been rolled out to Michigan Avenue, TV cameras are blinding ticket holders as they stumble through the doors, and concessionaires are pouring free champagne in the foyer.

The reasons for the programming became apparent a few pages into the symphony. In the first place it gets the entire orchestra, except the harp, onstage, and that's a nice way to open a season. In the second place it offers a whole slew of short but virtuoso solos, at least one for practically every principal player--beginning with an opening solo for trumpet, the occasion for the return of Adolph Herseth. The brass section gets to shine, and that's always good news with the CSO. The symphony also has some nifty Slavic tunes and harmonies, as well as the kind of sound barrage audiences adore. If in places it's still more an exercise in pointing where Shostakovich will go than a mature work that fully explores every idea, it's still a very fine piece of work.

It was also the highlight of the evening. The puzzler became the program's second half, Brahms's Fourth Symphony. Solti conducts it very well. The CSO plays it very well. But the CSO played it very well just a few weeks ago at Ravinia. What possible point could there be to playing it again so soon? And why not offer a program that was more exciting?

The answer probably lies in the real gala opening of the CSO's 105th season, the two concert performances of Die Meistersinger that begin this weekend. That work, which is to be recorded in concert, is extremely labor-intensive, not to mention expensive, with its huge chorus, orchestra, and soloists. Faced with that, I suspect, Solti took the easy out, programming one less-familiar work--the Shostakovich--and one most of the orchestra could probably play comatose.

That aside, it's a pleasure to have Solti back, with his clear, crisp direction and firmly articulated ideas. You can disagree on occasion with his interpretation, still knowing that he's thought everything out carefully and has reasons for each decision. It's also a pleasure to have the orchestra in its traditional seating--violas in the center, cellos to the right--making it easy to pick out each section's voice in the ensemble. The CSO was in fine form, with only a few sour notes here and there--mostly in the form of rough entrances by someone in the trumpet section--to remind us that it was a live performance.

This being the opening gala, the program was kept short--the Shostakovich is just over a half hour, the Brahms a trifle under 45 minutes--which left more of the evening for eating, drinking, dancing, and schmoozing. The CSO's black-tie dinner for big contributors was before the concert, but everyone who forked over the money for an opening-night ticket was invited to stroll over to the Palmer House for champagne, dancing, and a buffet supper--a nice touch, though someone should have thought twice about putting a brass ensemble just outside the door of Orchestra Hall, where it served to bottle up traffic nicely.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/courtesy of James Steere and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

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