Georg Solti celebration conducted worldwide

The Royal Opera House has just unveiled a Solti exhibition to illustrate his life and times in charge there

Of all the great musicians able to put NW3 on their letterhead, there have been few so magisterial as Sir Georg Solti – one of the pre-eminent conductors of the later 20th century (only Karajan and Bernstein ranked above him) who ruled Covent Garden through the 1960s, made a landmark contribution to the history of recording and presided over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 22 years.

That he also lived in Switzerland, America and Italy was immaterial: according to his widow Valerie, he always thought of their house on the Hampstead/Primrose Hill fault-line as his home. And it’s from there that Valerie, Lady Solti, has been co-ordinating events worldwide to mark the centenary of his birth on October 21.

For obvious reasons, they’ll be centred on Chicago where, come the day itself, Valerie will be onstage to introduce a concert by the World Orchestra for Peace, which Solti founded in 1995 under the aegis of the United Nations Organisation. Made up of front-desk players from some 60 leading orchestras around the globe, it gathers every couple of years to demonstrate, as she says, “that musicians from different backgrounds and religions can co-exist productively and in harmony with each other.

“That aside, there’s no political message: just that we must work harder at living together and respecting each other’s ways of life, which was an ideal close to Solti’s heart. Moving around the world, as he did all the time, he thought this had to be. And that it COULD be, with encouragement.”

Beyond Chicago, there are Solti celebrations in New York, Geneva and innumerable other places (not forgetting a memorial performance at the Barbican on October 23 given by the Crouch End Festival Chorus). And the Royal Opera House has just unveiled a Solti exhibition to illustrate his life and times in charge there.

But one special centre of centennial activity will be Budapest where he was born and where he now lies buried – next to the composer B�la Bart�k in a cemetery I visited with Valerie when we were there some years ago to look around a children’s music centre that a local Solti-funded trust supports. It was a joy to see that centre flourishing. And Solti would have been profoundly moved to see it too – because his childhood memories of Budapest were something that he carried with him all his life.

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He wasn’t born Georg Solti: he was Gyorgy Stern – a Jewish name that subsequently had to be Hungarianised as anti-semitism spread throughout the country. As a Jew, his burgeoning ambition to conduct at the State Opera faced considerable hurdles. And the only chance he got – a single Figaro – took place on the very day in 1938 that the Nazis moved into neighbouring Austria.

With Central Europe on the edge of turmoil, he was warned to leave and make for the United States. But, as Valerie explains, “to do that he needed to get a letter of reference from Toscanini in Lucerne. 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 was trapped for the duration in what turned out to be dire circumstances with no money, no way to support himself, and didn’t see Hungary again until the 1970s.”

If the war was a disaster, though, the aftermath of war provided Solti with a sequence of extraordinary opportunities as he established a career by filling the vacated jobs of Nazi sympathisers. He had almost no experience, having conducted just three operas in his life. But on the strength of those, he was given charge of the Bavarian State Opera (piecing it together after its complete wartime destruction), then the Frankfurt Opera.

In 1960, he came to Covent Garden, galvanising it with a professionalism, energy and international perspective that not everybody liked but was, in retrospect, responsible for its ascendancy among the opera houses of the modern world.

And, in 1965, he completed his epic Decca set of Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle which is, by general consent, the greatest recording project in the history of the medium and about to get a new lease of life with a remastered, luxury edition for the Wagner bicentenary next year.

Like most conductors, Solti had his friends and enemies. Some find his speeds hard-driven. Some recall him as a tyrant (in orchestral circles he was mischievously called “the screaming skull”). For others, though, he was a genial charmer with a wicked sense of humour. And there’s no denying his authority as an interpreter of Wagner, Bruckner and the Austro-German heavyweights – as well as Verdi, Bartok and a spread of repertoire beyond.

If nothing else, he was astonishingly thorough in his preparation, as you see from the meticulously detailed markings on his scores – which still sit in the study of the Solti house in NW3, guarded by Valerie (and good security).

“We thought he’d live to be 100 – he had so much energy, so full of projects, plans, ideas,” she told me last week. When he died in 1997, it was unexpected, a shock and altogether bad timing in that it happened in the same week as the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa and didn’t get the attention it deserved.

But the centenary provides a chance to compensate. It’s clearly being seized on with a vengeance. And when everything is over?

“I shall hang my widow’s weeds up and look for new challenges,” says Valerie, a woman who never stops for long. But I suspect she’ll find there’s no escape from being Solti’s widow. There’s a highly active foundation in his name that gives grants to young musicians in need. There’s a Solti Conducting Competition in Frankfurt. A Solti Academia in Italy for singers. Not to mention everything in Budapest. It’s a considerable legacy. And it runs on.

The ROH exhibition is open, free of charge, Monday to Friday 10am to 3.30pm. The Crouch End Festival Chorus concert (Brahms and Poulenc) is at the Barbican on Tuesday (October 23) at 7.30pm. Booking on 020-7638 8891. For details of the Solti Foundation, visit