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Sir Georg Solti (Yousuf Karsh photo)

As the summer of 1997 drew to a close, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association was putting the finishing touches on Symphony Center, culminating a three-year, $120 million project. To celebrate the renovation of Orchestra Hall and facilities expansion, a three-week festival was planned that included gala concerts and the first Day of Music, twenty-four hours of free, live performances across all genres in multiple Symphony Center venues.

One of the gala concerts was scheduled for Saturday, October 25, with music director laureate Sir Georg Solti leading the Orchestra in an all-Beethoven program: the Seventh Symphony and the Emperor Piano Concerto with music director Daniel Barenboim as soloist. The concert would celebrate not only Solti’s 85th birthday (October 21, 1997) but also his 1,000th concert with the Orchestra. In November, he was scheduled to return for two weeks of subscription concerts, leading Ives’s Decoration Day, Schumann’s Symphony no. 3, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 3, along with a full program of choruses from Wagner’s operas with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, to be recorded live by London.

Over the Labor Day holiday, the world had been rocked with the news of the tragic death of Princess Diana on Sunday, August 31. The day before her funeral on September 5, news outlets began to report the death of Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India. And late that same evening, we heard the unthinkable. While on holiday with his family in Antibes, France, Sir Georg Solti had taken ill and died peacefully in his sleep.

Michigan Avenue entrance of Orchestra Hall on September 6, 1997 (Marilyn Arado photo)

“I had just returned hours earlier from Europe, where I was working with Daniel Barenboim on Solti’s 85th birthday celebration concert,” remembered Martha Gilmer, former vice president for artistic planning. After confirming with Charles Kaye, Solti’s longtime assistant, she called Barenboim in Bayreuth, waking him to relay the news.

“I was stunned,” recalled Henry Fogel, then president of the CSO Association. The following morning, senior staff held a meeting to determine how to proceed with the plans for the festival, among several other issues. As some of them approached the entrance, “We were very touched because when we came to Orchestra Hall, one person had left a bouquet of flowers at the Michigan Avenue entrance.”

Daniel Barenboim leads Mozart’s Requiem on October 22, 1997 (Jim Steere photo)

The festival would continue mostly as planned. The Symphony Center inaugural gala opened with Barenboim leading a performance of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, performed in Solti’s memory. A special, free memorial concert was added on October 22 with Barenboim leading Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, followed by Mozart’s Requiem with Emily Magee, Anna Larsson, John Aler, René Pape, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus, prepared by Duain Wolfe.

Richard L. Thomas receives one of Solti’s batons from Lady Valerie Solti on October 25, 1997 (Jim Steere photo)

The program for the celebration concert on October 25 changed slightly, and Barenboim led Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto from the keyboard along with the Seventh Symphony. At the beginning of the concert, Lady Valerie Solti presented Richard L. Thomas (chairman of the CSO Association from 1986 until 1991) with one of Solti’s batons.

A special commemorative program book for the memorial and celebration concerts was prepared, and it included tributes from President Bill Clinton, Illinois governor Jim Edgar, and Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, along with Solti’s colleagues from all over the world, members of the Orchestra, and administrative staff. The program book is available here.

The block of Adams Street between Michigan and Wabash avenues was named honorary Sir Georg Solti Place on October 24, 1997. The following spring (just before the beginning of the fifteenth European tour with concerts in Paris and Berlin), a small contingent of Orchestra family traveled to Budapest for a ceremony on March 28, 1998, in which Solti’s ashes were interred next to the grave of his teacher, Béla Bartók. During the ceremony, principal viola Charles Pikler performed Ravel’s Kaddish.

Fogel continued, “One thought that I did keep having was how sad it was that Maestro Solti would never see the renovated hall, with which I believe he would have been thrilled.”

“Solti, so vibrant, such energy, such magnetism, such a life force,” added Gilmer. “It was impossible to believe that it ended so quietly and in a place so far away. . . . He was a young 84-year-old and what occurred to all of us is that we had all been robbed of wonderful musical memories that were yet to be made.”

Decca Classics is releasing a 108-CD set of Sir Georg Solti’s entire catalog with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the United States on September 15, 2017. It can be pre-ordered here.


In addition to his incredibly vast discography, Sir Georg Solti has left behind a distinct legacy, dedicated not only to the next generations of musicians but also to music lovers.

Headquartered in Belgium, The Solti Foundation provides support to young instrumentalists and composers from all over the world, preparing to embark on international careers. On the foundation’s website, Lady Valerie Solti provides this mission: “Following his death my daughters and I established the Solti Foundation as a memorial to his life by continuing the help he gave. Graduating from a music school is a critical time—financial support comes to an end as well as pastoral care. The Solti Foundation’s aim is to assist this transition period. The small grants are not intended to replace awards and bursaries from larger institutions, they are to be used for projects such as coaching, travel to competitions and auditions, short periods of study, the hire of rehearsal facilities. A team of volunteers also provides pastoral care and career advice.”

The mission of The Solti Foundation U.S., also founded shortly after Sir Georg’s death, is “to assist talented young American musicians at the start of their professional careers. It has made annual grants to awardees since 2003. Since 2004 it has focused on helping exceptional young conductors.” Lady Solti reiterated: “Sir Georg Solti believed in a guardian angel that guided his life and he was grateful to the agents of that angel—the people who helped him at difficult times. The Solti Foundation believes that music is essential—especially during these troubled times—to healing and connecting individuals and global lives. Therefore, we are committed to realizing Sir Georg’s passion for excellence in music and extending help to further the early careers of those with exceptional talent.”

According to their website, the Georg Solti Accademia “aims to educate highly talented young singers and repetiteurs from all over the world in the art of Italian opera and song. The Accademia offers masterclasses of the highest standards in musicianship, language and dramatic interpretation, providing students with the vital bridge between the end of formal training and professional life. . . . [The] annual Georg Solti Accademia di Bel Canto takes place in the Tuscan seaside town of Castiglione della Pescaia where Solti spent his summers. The course brings together the greatest living interpreters and teachers with outstanding student singers and repetiteurs. Each summer twelve young singers receive scholarships to come to Castiglione for three weeks of intensive training in Italian music, culture and language. The Accademia has already established itself as one of the leading Italian opera courses in the world, and in 2008 added a two-week programme for repetiteurs.”

Sponsored primarily by the Alte Oper, the Frankfurt Opera House and Museum’s Orchestra, and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, the International Sir Georg Solti Conductors’ Competition seeks to discover and identify new talents. The mission statement on their website includes: “Numerous competitions are being organised for instrumentalists, ensembles, and even for composers; conductors rarely have the chance to match with their competitors. This made it an urgent need to create a forum where young talents can present themselves and receive competent assessment of the standard they have reached. The competition’s superior rank can also be found in its name: Sir Georg Solti, who led the Frankfurt Opera during 1952-1961, referred to this decade as ‘ten happy and fruitful years.’ But how is one to select? What paths does one follow in one’s search? And how does one best present one’s findings to orchestra and public alike? These considerations make the conductors’ competition more than just a qualifying contest; it also offers an opportunity for all involved to usefully gather and exchange experiences.”

The Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprenticeship, hosted by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, invites young conductors to “apply for a two-year conducting apprenticeship. The winning candidate, chosen by an international jury chaired by Maestro Riccardo Muti, will have unique access to the CSO’s music director and to key guest conductors of the CSO. Both Riccardo Muti and his predecessor Sir Georg Solti (CSO music director 1969–91) followed the same traditional path to their conducting careers through their work in the opera house. Maestro Muti remains passionate about the importance of a conductor’s ability to rehearse with an artist at the piano. . . . As the CSO’s Conducting Fellow, the winning candidate will have invaluable access to observe and study with preeminent musical leaders. The apprenticeship offers the opportunity, over two consecutive seasons, to spend at least four weeks a year in Chicago studying with CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti, Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus Pierre Boulez, and other guest conductors of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.”

Founded in 1995 by Sir Georg Solti to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations and to reaffirm, in his words, “the unique strength of music as an ambassador for peace,” the World Orchestra for Peace “draws its players come from orchestras all over the world, many of them concert masters and section leaders in their own right, and the orchestra has no existence outside the very special occasions that call it into being. The orchestra is also unique in practical terms. There’s the logistical challenge of assembling everyone. The eminent players must put aside issues of status: their seating positions rotate, and the section leaders vary from work to work. Even tuning can be tricky since orchestras play at different pitches across the world. Its members do not draw a salary from it, yet return time after time to bear witness to the spirit which animates it.”

“Solti only conducted the first concert in Geneva on July 5, 1995. But this key element of his legacy has been kept alive and administered by Director and General Manager Charles Kaye, Solti’s former executive assistant, who invited Valery Gergiev to take over the baton as its conductor. In the seventeen years since—culminating in the Centenary Concert at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on Solti’s 100th birthday (October 21, 2012)—the World Orchestra for Peace has given twenty concerts in fourteen countries, with the participation of 388 players representing over seventy-five orchestras from more than sixty countries of the world.”*

And finally, in addition to the bust of Solti that resides in Grant Park, there is a small legacy here in Chicago that many of my colleagues and I walk by nearly every day. At the corner of Michigan Avenue and Adams Street and the corner of Adams and Wabash Avenue, there are honorary street signs—identifying Honorary Sir Georg Solti Place—that were dedicated on October 24, 1997. The signs serve as a small reminder to us of the musician who contributed so much to our Chicago community.

*The second paragraph of the section regarding the World Orchestra for Peace—provided by a representative from the ensemble—was added on January 24, 2013.


Sir Georg Solti descends the steps in Amsterdam's Concertgebouw to begin the concert on January 29

Sir Georg Solti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s fifth tour to Europe in January and February 1985, including stops in Belgium, England, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

January 15, 1985 – Konserthuset, Stockholm, Sweden
January 17, 1985 – Beethovenhalle, Bonn, Germany
January 20, 1985 – Alte Oper, Frankfurt, Germany
January 21, 1985 – Tonhalle, Zurich, Switzerland
January 24, 1985 – Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain
January 27, 1985 – Salle Pleyel, Paris, France
January 29, 1985 – Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
January 31, 1985 – Royal Festival Hall, London, England
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (Unfinished)

Program from the January 18 performance in Düsseldorf

January 16, 1985 – Musikhalle, Hamburg, Germany
January 23, 1985 – Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain
January 26, 1985 – Salle Pleyel, Paris, France
February 2, 1985 – Royal Festival Hall, London, England
CORIGLIANO Tournaments Overture
MOZART Symphony No. 39 in E flat Major, K. 543
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36

January 18, 1985 – Tonhalle, Düsseldorf, Germany
MOZART Symphony No. 39 in E flat Major, K. 543
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (Unfinished)

Solti, Lady Solti, Charles Kaye, and Bernard Haitink at the reception following the January 29 concert in Amsterdam

January 30, 1985 – Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Belgium
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36

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The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.


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