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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.

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date (Dan Rest photo)

July 22, 2001 (Dan Rest photo)

On July 22, 2001, Daniel Barenboim and the Orchestra were scheduled to give a free outdoor concert beginning at 6:00 p.m. in Harrison Park in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. However, shortly after 5:00, strong wind gusts and torrential rain left the musicians waiting out the storm in the nearby Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum,* which had co-sponsored the daylong Plazas de México arts festival.

According to Wynne Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times, “At 6:10 p.m., as the wind subsided and the rain began to let up, Henry Fogel, the CSO’s rain-soaked president, announced that he was ‘willing to give it a try.’ The hardy audience members, many of them crowded under the museum’s sheltering eaves, began returning to the park, with their folding chairs, soggy blankets, and children in tow.”

Following a quick cleanup of the stage, Barenboim greeted the nearly 2,000-member audience and began the concert, barely an hour after it was scheduled to begin. He led the Orchestra in works by Latin American composers, including Carlos Gardel, José Pablo Mancayo, Mariano Mores, Astor Piazzolla, Silvestre Revueltas, Gerardo Matos Rodríguez, and Horacio Salgán (due to the delayed start, Ravel’s Boléro was omitted from the program).

The Orchestra’s music director “lived in Buenos Aires for the first decade of his life, and the infectious, syncopated rhythms and folk-inspired melodies of Latin music, especially the tango, are in his blood,” continued Delacoma. “Between pieces Sunday, Barenboim chatted easily with the audience in Spanish. This was not a program conjured out of nowhere simply to raise the CSO’s profile in Chicago’s Latin community. . . . The CSO wants residents of Pilsen—and every other Chicago neighborhood—to know that classical music isn’t the exclusive property of people who can afford the most expensive seats in Symphony Center. That message came through loud and clear Sunday.”

*The museum changed its name to the National Museum of Mexican Art in December 2006.

This article also appears here.

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Barenboim, Solti, and Kubelík onstage at the end of the concert

Barenboim, Solti, and Kubelík onstage at the end of the concert (Jim Steere photo)

On October 18, 1991, new music director Daniel Barenboim shared the podium with two of his predecessors, Rafael Kubelík and Sir Georg Solti, to bring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s centennial celebration to a grand conclusion. The program was a recreation of the Orchestra’s inaugural concerts, conducted by its first music director, Theodore Thomas, on October 16 and 17, 1891.

The program opened with Barenboim leading Wagner’s A Faust Overture, followed by Solti conducting both Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto (with Barenboim as soloist). Kubelík concluded the program with Dvořák’s Husitská Overture.

Centennial Gala Finale program

The concert was unexpectedly interrupted shortly after intermission. Several patrons who attended a preconcert dinner were given digital clocks as a gift, several of which had unintentionally been preset to start beeping at 9:15 p.m., just as Tchaikovsky’s concerto began. After the first movement, “Solti halted the proceedings, telling the audience it was impossible to continue as long as the noise persisted. . . . Executive director Henry Fogel, visibly embarrassed, explained the problem and requested everyone who was holding one of the clocks to please check them with an usher. Meanwhile, the source of the beeping was traced to the lower balcony. Out went the alarms,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “Huge sigh of relief. On with the Tchaikovsky. On with the show.”

A particularly special moment of the evening was the performance of the final work on the program. According to von Rhein, “Clearly this music touched a deep vein of national pride in the seventy-seven-year-old Kubelík, and he inspired the Orchestra to its finest work of the evening. It made an unforgettable coda to the CSO’s first 100 years. . . . Kubelík drew a prolonged standing ovation, with the Orchestra members remaining seated as he took his bows, refusing to steal his limelight until he was finally able to persuade them to stand. . . . As the applause continued, he was joined on stage by Barenboim and Solti. The CSO responded with a tusch (brass fanfare), the traditional gesture of acclamation for conductors.”

Some of this content was previously posted here; this article also appears here.

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To honor Sir Georg Solti’s seventy-fifth birthday, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus gave a gala concert of the highest order on October 9, 1987.

Governor James R. Thompson opened the concert with welcoming remarks, and after the intermission, Mayor Harold Washington presented Sir Georg with the City of Chicago’s Medal of Merit. The concert program was as follows:

CORIGLIANO Campane di Ravello (world premiere)
Kenneth Jean, conductor

J. STRAUSS Overture to Die Fledermaus
Plácido Domingo, conductor

MOZART Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat Major, K. 365
Sir Georg Solti, conductor and piano
Murray Perahia, piano

STRAUSS Don Juan, Op. 20
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

Plácido Domingo and Kiri Te Kanawa perform a scene from Verdi’s Otello (Jim Steere photo)

VERDI Excerpts from Act 1 of Otello
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano
Plácido Domingo, tenor
Kurt R. Hansen, tenor
Joseph Wolverton, tenor
Richard Cohn, baritone
David Huneryager, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

The commemorative program contained letters and testimonials from numerous public officials, conductors, musicians, and industry professionals, including: Ronald Reagan, James R. Thompson, Harold Washington, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Carlo Maria Giulini, Rafael Kubelík, John Corigliano, Christoph von Dohnányi, Rudolf Serkin, Henry Fogel, Michael Tilson Thomas, Christa Ludwig, Birgit Nilsson, Witold Lutosławski, Sir Charles Mackerras, Mstislav Rostropovich, Klaus Tennstedt, David Del Tredici, Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Slatkin, Werner Klemperer, José van Dam, Elliott Carter, Karel Husa, Isaac Stern, Morton Gould, Hans Werner Henze, Itzhak Perlman, Anja Silja, Erich Leinsdorf, Josef Suk, Plácido Domingo, Michael Tippett, Kiri Te Kanawa, Murray Perahia, Leontyne Price, András Schiff, Kenneth Jean, Andrzej Panufnik, Dame Janet Baker, Pierre Boulez, Yvonne Minton, Herbert Blomstedt, Mira Zakai, Margaret Hillis, Gunther Herbig, Ray Minshull, Ann Murray, Philip Langridge, Raymond Leppard, Vladimir Ashkenazy, George Rochberg, Gwynne Howell, Ardis Krainik, Michael Morgan, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Henry Mancini, and Barbara Hendricks.

Solti and Perahia as soloists in Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos (Jim Steere photo)

The concert was covered widely in the press, in the Chicago Tribune (here, here, and here) and Sun-Times (here and here), as well as Time, Newsweek, the Post-Tribune, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among many others.

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