Lady Solti: ‘I was a sort of musical idiot but Georg showed me orchestral gems’

Lady Solti

Lady Solti - Credit: Archant

Lady Valerie Solti went from being one of the BBC’s first television presenters to a patron for multiple arts causes. Zoe Paskett finds out how her husband’s love for music shaped her path in life

“Music does not mean sitting in a concert hall for two hours listening to something that was composed three hundred years ago.”

These are quite some words coming from a woman who has spent much of her time doing just that.

Valerie Pitts, or Lady Solti as she is now known, has dedicated her life to music. Following her marriage to world famous conductor Sir Georg Solti KBE, she was plunged into the world of orchestras and instruments, accompanying him to rehearsals and concerts around the world.

“It’s not about putting on your best frock and keeping quiet and being pompous about it,” she says.

“Music, any sort of music that strikes a chord if you’ll excuse the pun, is that link between the physical and the metaphysical.

“That’s the wonderful thing. It’s not a commodity, though it can become one, it’s an untouchable thing; it’s just there in the ether.”

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As one of the BBCs original television presenters in the fifties, she met her late husband by happenstance, when she had to interview him as a last minute filler for a missing news piece.

Despite her being married and he separated, they fell in love and wed soon after.

Sir Georg Solti, who died in 1997, was born and raised in Budapest where he was a pupil of Bartok, but found himself having to flee due to the rise of the Nazis.

Lady Solti describes his escape from Hungary as a near miss. A friend and chairman of the Budapest Opera told him that it was time for him to move to America.

So that he could obtain a visa, he would have to travel to Italy to get a letter of reference from great conductor Arturo Toscanini, he told him.

“My husband said ‘thank you for that advice’, and he said ‘no, this isn’t advice, here is the money for the train’.

“He was in Switzerland when the war broke out and his mother told him not to come home.”

Throughout her husband’s life and after this death, Lady Solti has committed herself to countless musical causes, and led her and her daughters to set up the Solti Foundation, giving aid to young musicians.

“My motivation for all these things comes from the fact that that money for the train ticket probably saved his life.

“What I’ve tried to do is to enable a lot of younger people by introducing them at the right place or getting a grant for them to help them move on, because that train fare was a key thing for him.

“The arts are wonderful and not available to everybody so what we have to do is try to make it more available.”

One of her current ventures is as co-president of the Jewish Institute of Music.

“When Leopold de Rothschild was asked to be president he said: ‘I’ll do it if you’ll do it.’ I thought they need him and so I’ve been involved since.”

Starting this weekend is the JMI Jewish Arts and Music festival, which Lady Solti is most enthusiastic about.

She waxes lyrical about all the performers: Johan Dalene, the teen violinist performing in Celebrating Menuhin with the Yehudi Menuhin School Orchestra; musician, songwriter and artistic director of JMI Sophie Solomon; and Klezmer in the Park at Regent’s Park.

“I feel enormously privileged as a non-Jew to be a part of this – apart from my own family associations with my husband.

“It is a very enlightening thing and it touches a thread inside us all who respond to music.”

She describes herself as a “representative of the listeners”.

“I was a very mediocre musician at school. I played the piano, I loved playing it and I thrashed my way through all sorts of things.

“The joy of music making was there, but I was just so terribly untalented it really wasn’t joyful for anybody else.”

Her lack of musical skill was never a deterrent in her exploration of the discipline, and she acknowledges the unparalleled education she received from her husband.

“He would often call me downstairs to his studio and he’d say ‘listen to this beautiful bit’ and show me on the score.

“How lucky I was! There I was, a sort of musical idiot, being shown all these gems.”

She recounts the amount of time spent sitting in on rehearsals, describing one day in 1966 when they took a television into the opera house so they could watch the world cup in the interval.

“I supported England, he and the great Wagnerian singer Hans Hotter were supporting Germany. I was sandwiched between these two men and this was an iconic match. So there I was, celebrating between these two musical titans.”

The JMI JAM festival opens on September 8 with Celebrating Menuhin at Kings Place, 7pm.

Klezmer in the Park in Regent’s Park follows on September 11, 12.15pm.

Jewkbox Live celebrates the recording history of Jewish music on September 13, 7pm.

Sophie Solomon performs at The Jazz Café on September 14, 7pm.