Conductor’s beat goes on for Lady Solti

After he received help to flee the Nazis, the conductor made it his mission to support young musicians. Fourteen years on from his death, his wife continues with his work

�A giant among 20th century conductors, Sir Georg Solti was a master of timing in all respects but that of his death, which fell in the same week as Princess Diana and Mother Theresa in 1997 and was sidelined to the margins of world news. But he is not forgotten.

Like many great musicians, he was fortunate to have a greatly spirited (and younger) wife to keep the flame and, still based in their family house on Primrose Hill, Lady Valerie Solti has spent the past 14 years doing just that – by tireless promotion of the causes that were close to her husband’s heart.

I don’t know anyone on quite so many arts foundations, boards and trusts. She does it round the world and round the clock and, as the centenary of Solti’s birth approaches in 2012, her travel schedule won’t be lighter.

But she’ll be in NW3 next month for a home territory prelude to the events planned far and wide for the big 100.

Running at Hampstead Parish Church under the auspices of the Hampstead and Highgate Festival, it will be a concert to showcase the work of the Solti Foundation which exists to support emerging musicians at a critical time in their lives.

“People don’t realise,” she says, “that when students graduate from a music college there’s no structure to help them and they easily get stuck. They might need practice space, accommodation, concert clothes. They may be travelling long distances to do auditions.

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“All this is expensive and we set up the foundation to help out with the costs because, back in 1939, a young Hungarian musician called Georg Solti was quite seriously stuck himself. The clouds were gathering over Europe, he was Jewish and people were telling him to leave for America.

“To do that, he needed to get a letter of reference from [the Italian conductor Arturo] Toscanini in Lucerne and he couldn’t afford the train fare. But a supporter gave him the money, saying, ‘Go tomorrow.’ So he went, on what he thought would be a short trip, and found Toscanini. Next day, war broke out and that was it – he didn’t see Hungary again until the 1970s.

“I have a pile of letters from the war years when he was trapped in Switzerland and they tell you how desperate life was for a Jewish refugee with no work, no money, nothing, and his family in danger. It was because he was always grateful for the help he got from one or two people that he made a point of helping young musicians himself when he was established.”

Life for Solti was totally transformed by the time he met Valerie. It was the mid-60s, he was music director of the Royal Opera House and she was a TV presenter sent to interview him in his hotel suite. He answered the door in a state of undress, holding a single sock and asked if she could help him find the other one. As routes to matrimony go, it was direct.

But marriage opened her eyes to the wider, grimmer world of his past hardships. As she says: “I’d been to RADA, I’d done the BBC thing, I’d been abroad. But I had no idea what life was like outside my own comfortable existence. This man of Hungarian-Jewish origins in long-term exile from his home was a revelation to me. For all his eminence, he was like a gipsy, with a strong sense of survival.”

Next month’s concert features young musicians who have been assisted by the Solti Foundation and, in some cases, taken part in the Solti Academy – a summer school for singers in a small Italian seaside town where there’s another Solti family house.

Having stayed there and witnessed the academy in action, I can vouch for the quality of the students who get taught by the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa and Thomas Allen. And, though it’s only for a week or so, a little learning at that level goes a long way – as you’ll hear when it ends up at Hampstead.

n The Solti Foundation concert, hosted by Lady Solti, is on Tuesday June 21 at Hampstead Parish Church, Church Row, at 7.30pm. Booking on 0870 033 2733 or online at