What does a famous conductor do on the afternoon of the concert? On Saturday, Sir Georg Solti of the Chicago Symphony had a long lunch, took a walking tour of the azaleas of Foggy Bottom and discussed the shortage of greatness in our time.
Solti, whose admirers have excitedly declared him the world's best conductor, does not confine his concern about the paucity of greatness to the field of music, though he did suggest recently that Chicago erect a statue in his honor.
And in response to a remark that Lorin Maazel of the Cleveland Orchestra made suggesting that Solti, Herbert Von Karajan and Maazel are the only contemporary conductors who meet the highest standards, he comments merely, "Well. I would broaden the list."
At the luncheon table, Solti seems like a somewhat avuncular 65-year-old banker. But most of the time he is articulate and animated, and the success of his nine years with the Chicago Symphony is not based on theatrical pyrotechnics.
He was once quoted as saying that he could conduct the orchestra with one eyebrow. Asked if the report was accurate, he paused for a moment. "Sir Georg," someone said, "do you realize you are raising your eyebrow?"
Solti broke into a belly laugh. "Well then, it must be true!"
He approached lunch with trepidation, among other reasons because, "Every time I have been to this restaurant it has taken two hours." The Solti solution, under prompting by his wife, Lady Valerie, was to direct a new acquaintance to choose for him the less disagreeable dishes of the menu.
When the conductor observed of his vichysoise, "This is very good, and did you hear me, I said very good," the acquaintance felt somewhat like the entire violin section being complimented after a difficult passage.
Then Solti asked to be taken on a tour of the innards of the Kennedy Center, where he informed the Chicago's concertmaster that a rare violin had disappeared there last week, and to take specia precautions. "I do not wish to alarm the players, but . . ." he said, taking the concertmaster aside.
Afterwards, instead of going back to the hotel and burying his head in a score, he announced he would take a walk and look at the scenery.
"For me, San Francisco and Washington are this country's most beautiful cities. And since Chicago has no spring, this is our only chance to see the azaleas. I remember the azaleas of Dallas when I worked there. Beautiful."
Part of the walk was onto the Kennedy Center terrace, where Solti put a foot up on the ledge and an arm around Lady Solti.
There was confusion. Why did the Potomac appear to be flowing westward instead of eastward? It was explained that the south wind simply made it look that way on the surface. Solti nodded his head and observed, "You know, I have never been able to get America's rivers straight in my mind." The walk proceeded, taking "the long way" through a substantial part of Foggy Bottom. Virtually every time he saw an azalea in reasonably full bloom he said, "Beautiful."
Solti gives the impression of being a man with a very large ego who is not, in the process, a monster. Did he really say that he had done so much for Chicago the city should erect a statue of him?
"I'm afraid that that silly sentence is not a misquotation, much to my regret. But at least for the sake of my reputation it ought to be put in context. I was getting a lot of static in the press, and got angry and held a press conference. And somehow I ended up rather immodestly saying that, I'm human and I got angry and I was defending myself. Do you blame me?"
Solti doesn't try to hide his ego, but his word for it is "leadership." And he thinks "you are born with it," whether conductor or statesman.
"I want to be honest with you. I think that talent is about half of it, and you can't create that. The other half of leadership is work, grit, development, sacrifice and all that.
"And this business of leadership is no laughing matter. We are woefully short on giants both in statecraft and in artcraft. Where are the Churchills, the Maos, the De Gaulles, the Roosevelts and even, in a negative way, the Stalins today? The last one was Kennedy. Now there is nobody . . . I can't imagine the Aldo Moro thing happening if the West were really led. The problem exists in Eastern Europe and extends to right here where we are. This is really the story of our time.
"And the same is true in music - literally this decline of the West. In his way Maazel is right about conductors. Just think back to 1920 or 1930 when I could name you 25 giants, all performing at the same time. I won't bore you with a list, but just think about Toscanini, Water, Krauss, Furtwaengler, Richard Strauss and so on. We don't have it today."
Soliti says this perception is hardly originial with him. "I remember going to Bruno Walter in Los Angeles at Christmas in 1959 for his advice. I had been offered the leadership of the Royal Opera and I was reluctant to take it because of fears of dealing with the British musicians. That was silly, of course, because I am now a British citizen.
"But that was not the issue that Walter was concerned with. He said to me, The tradition has been for the best conductors in mid-life to direct opera houses. When you are old you cannot do it. And the tradition is lagging. You have to do this just to insure continuity of something very important."
Solti took the job. He was a triumph, of course, and that is where he met Lady Valerie Solti. They married in 1967 and have two children. It also was the reason he received his knighthood, an honor he learned about through a letter that arrived at the opera house one day during a break in the first day of rehearsals for a new "Tristan".
"Valerie kept telling me to come look at his letter and I was harried and upset with the performance. And Valerie finally just forced the letter on me. I read it and I just could not believe it. I was just so flabbergasted. Imagine a conductor born in Hungary being knighted by the queen."
The Soltis still keep their home in London and a hotel apartment in Chicago.
It was by chance that Solti and the Chicago Symphony came together. "I really didn't know much about the orchestra and I went there as a guest conductor in the 1960s. And after one set of concerts I though "This is the orchestra I've been looking for all my life.' And I told the management that if there were ever an opening in the conductor's chair I would like to at least be informed."
Solti took over in 1969 and conductor and orchestra have been the talk of the music world ever since. Even its critics complain on grounds that it may be a little too polished.
Solti categorically declares. "There is not a blase player in the entire orchestra."
During the walk past the azaleas on Saturday, Solti expressed worries about the players. "Tonight will be the fifth this week and that's too many. We all tire, both the players and me." As it turned out, he need not have worried, but that kind of worry is one of the burdens of good leadership.
It is a burden that is not getting Solti down - he just signed up for five more years in Chicago. And, he says, "That's as long as a person should commit himself to anything."