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Sir Georg Solti and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in front of Saint Basil's Cathedral in November 1990

Sir Georg Solti and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in November 1990 (Jim Steere photo)

On November 18, 1990, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra departed for a tour that would include its first concerts in Russia as well as in Sir Georg Solti’s native Hungary.

“Orchestra officials concede this trip was the toughest they have ever put together, requiring more than a year’s planning and a major solicitation,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. Quoting Solti, “I fought very hard for this tour. . . .We have the opportunity to send a message from our city, and from this orchestra, which is unparalleled by any ambassador America could send to Russia [and that] America has produced a cultural institution that is the best in the world.”

Early on November 21, Solti and the Orchestra recorded Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony at the Bolshoi Hall of the Philharmonie in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg); that evening they performed their first concert: Bartók’s Dance Suite and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The following evening’s program featured only Bruckner’s symphony; however, the audience demanded no less than four encores, and Solti and the Orchestra obliged with Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, the second movement (Allegro) from Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Debussy’s Festivals from Nocturnes.

Russia tour book

Traveling on to Moscow the next day, a truck hauling instruments and luggage broke an axle just outside Leningrad. “It took dozens of midnight phone calls and a full militia escort to get the instruments and performance clothes to the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory just four-and-a-half hours before the CSO was to begin playing,” reported Thom Shanker, a correspondent in the Tribune’s Moscow bureau. “As if that weren’t enough . . . students, soldiers, museum workers, and average folks lied, pushed, and flashed false passes to win their way into the hall. Fire codes were ignored as spectators filled the aisles, exits, and passageways in the balconies of the nineteenth-century concert hall.”

For the November 28 concert in Budapest, Solti led the Orchestra in an all-Bartók program: the Dance Suite, Third Piano Concerto with András Schiff, and the Concerto for Orchestra. Again, the audience demanded more: Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, Shostakovich’s Allegro, and Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger.

This article also appears here.

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