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Unlike its honoree, Georg Solti tribute concert falters at times

Updated: November 23, 2012 6:23AM

If you knew Georg Solti — as an audience member, a musician, a journalist, a friend — you miss him.

He was a man who was filled with an infectious vitality, literally until his unexpected death six weeks before his 85th birthday.

Of the last generation of artists whose adult lives were directly shaped and distorted by both fascism and communism, when World War II ended Solti never stopped and he never flagged. “My whole life is this lesson,” he would say. “Never give up.”

Munich. Frankfurt. London. Recordings. He conquered them all right out of the gate. And in 1969 he began his 22-year musical leadership of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “The most significant partnership of his career,” his widow Valerie has said many times. “Filled with his greatest accomplishments.”

So it was fitting that one of the two iterations of “The Solti Centennial Concert” should take place in Chicago on his actual 100th birthday anniversary Sunday afternoon on the stage where he reigned from 1969 to 1991 and continued to visit as laureate conductor until five months before his death in fall 1997. (The other was Friday night at New York’s Carnegie Hall.)

Or so it would seem. For this was an all-over-the-map intermissionless afternoon (it was being recorded for future international television broadcast and was sent out live locally and around the world by the WFMT Radio Network) that often resembled a variety show more than a focused musical tribute.

Two years before his death, Solti launched the World Orchestra for Peace, made up of leading players from the many ensembles he’d been associated with. It’s been led in its basically annual performances since the one concert Solti directed himself by Russian Valery Gergiev, whose pro-Putin comments in recent years about stability and “strong leadership” and “Russian spiritual values” are words that would have sent shivers up the anti-authoritarian Solti’s spine.

The eclectic program had Gergiev racing through the Overture to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” finding more breath and space in the “Don Juan” of Richard Strauss, a great postwar booster of Solti, and then turning to accompaniment for stars Solti helped launch: the brilliant former-East German bass Rene Pape in Sarastro’s “Within these hallowed halls” from “The Magic Flute,” and Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu in what seemed like an almost comic characterization of a much older diva recalling her way through the Letter Scene from Verdi’s “La traviata.” Given Gheorghiu’s antics, the Don’s brief duet with Zerlina from “Don Giovanni” went better than it probably had a right to.

More Verdi followed, the Act 3 quartet from “Rigoletto” from some of today’s emerging artists, an international quartet from the Georg Solti Accademia in the Tuscan town where Solti summered, conducted idiomatically by the Romanian-American Cristian Macelaru, this year’s recipient of the top award from the Solti Foundation U.S. Matilda Paulsson, a Swedish mezzo, was the standout among the singers, not only because of her astonishingly teased and red-dyed hair and wild getup, and Macelaru continues to show that the U.S. group made a good bet.

A high-powered reading of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony followed, giving way to an almost restrained performance of the Concerto for Orchestra by Bartok, for whom Solti turned pages as a student in Budapest and whom he revered and championed his entire life. As in the Strauss, there was an eerie resonance here as former CSO associate horn Gail Williams captained her European colleagues, reminding Chicagoans of what a great horn section can sound like and what one hopes the CSO’s might resemble again.

Valerie Solti, who provided biographical narrative between a number of the pieces and introduced moving video clips from Placido Domingo, Renee Fleming, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Hungarian-Jewish-exile compatriot Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia, then invited a number of current and former CSO musicians to add to their nine Chicago WOFP colleagues and some very excited Europeans in an encore of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The alums included percussionist Gordon Peters, saxophone Burl Lane and piccolo Walfrid Kujala.

You missed Solti.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7)

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