SALZBURG, AUSTRIA -- A nervous Hungarian reporter stands to ask the maestro a question. She begins in German, then switches into Hungarian.
Sir Georg Solti smiles, cocks his ear, squints a bit. The language is familiar, of course, but it has been so long. He left his native Hungary at age 27, a Jew who escaped the Nazi terror by sheer luck. He has lived most of the rest of his life in Britain and the United States.
And now this young woman at a press conference -- so full of hope, so thrilled by the possibilities unleashed in this year of change -- wants to know if the maestro plans to play with Hungarian musicians, now that the borders are open and artists can cross freely once more.
"I very much want to," the 77-year-old conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra answers, in German. "Not because they are Hungarian, but because they are talented. We don't want to make any nationalistic music. We want to make good music."
The reporter sits down, a bit disappointed.
Solti, who's appearing at this summer's Salzburg Festival, understands the excitement of this moment in Europe. "Never has Europe been so full of hope and fear as now," he says.
But he is skeptical, even a bit fearful -- of rising nationalism, of antisemitism that he says the West must watch carefully. He has seen great change before, and despite a long career as one of the world's great conductors, he has been scarred by history.
In August 1939, 12 days before Nazi Germany launched World War II, Solti, who is Jewish, went to Switzerland to see Arturo Toscanini, his mentor. A few days later he got a cable from his mother, telling him not to come back. Solti, who had already served as Toscanini's assistant at Salzburg, spent his late twenties and early thirties in Switzerland, waiting.
So he is loath to declare an era of good feelings. He returned to Hungary and found that "nobody has ever been a Communist. They've all changed their clothes, the colors of their suits. It's the same as Germany in 1946. Nobody had ever been a Nazi. I never met a Nazi."
Still, Solti welcomes the revolutions of '89, takes a special interest in finding young Hungarian soloists. A new generation of instrumentalists is already emerging from Eastern Europe, pianists and violinists especially, he says.
"What is missing is singers -- I don't know if that is psychological, or perhaps food, bad diet. And where are the conductors? Look at history, though. There really haven't been many great Russian or East European conductors, except for a few from Hungary."
Including this gentle, relaxed man, a wandering musician who has achieved conducting greatness without crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics, a man who gets teary talking about "my children," the two-thirds of the Chicago Symphony players whom he has brought to the orchestra in his 21 years there.
After conducting in Munich, Frankfurt, London and Chicago -- which he will leave next year -- Solti is back at Salzburg, where he has inherited Herbert von Karajan's baton at the Easter and Whitsun festivals in Mozart's birthplace.
Indeed, Solti is sitting for an interview now, a day before the premiere of his production of Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera," in the sparely furnished antechamber of Karajan's office at Salzburg's Festspielhaus. Karajan's ghost hovers over the festival that the legendary Berlin Philharmonic conductor had turned into his personal fiefdom, and Solti knows it.
"I'm only using a little room on the side of his backstage office, and a bathroom, which is desperately needed for a conductor," Solti says. He chuckles at the mention of the worshipful tones in which Karajan's name is still invoked.
"This year everyone talks about him," Solti says. "Next year, it'll be 50 percent less. The third year, no one will say anything. This is the human fate, to be forgotten."
Solti knows that Karajan was obsessed with creating every possible record of his work -- sounds, words, even pictures, saved in an extensive, state-of-the-art video collection.
The conductor smiles mischievously, smothers his face -- the smooth, golden brown skin of someone decades younger -- with his ever-wandering hands. He has spoken sacrilege, and he likes its sound.
Later, he says he expects no revolution at Salzburg, only small and gradual changes.
Last summer, after Karajan died, Solti rushed from his Italian vacation home to take charge of Karajan's final operatic production.
Any transition would come as a shock to the regulars at this most conservative and expensive of music festivals, a nearly year-round program of concerts that its new director, the Belgian Gerard Mortier, slammed as "deadly boring."
But the shift in conductors from Karajan to Solti is especially dramatic. Karajan was a rigid, precise man who preferred rigorous formality in the staging of his operas as well as in the dress of his audience. Solti is an unusually relaxed conductor, a maestro who still smiles at being addressed with that honorific, a surprisingly small man who exhibits little flash in conversation or on the podium.
The two artists met their turbulent times with strikingly different attitudes. Karajan joined the Nazi Party twice, claiming it was the only way he could work in prominent positions. Solti left Budapest just ahead of the Nazis; he had no money and only one suit.
"I left Hungary not because of any special intelligence, but out of sheer good luck," Solti says. "I have always believed I have a guardian angel that took me out."
While Karajan satisfied his Nazi bosses, Solti found safety and artistic frustration in a neutral Switzerland, where the only musical work he found was as a pianist.
"My professional outlook was so bleak then," he says. "I played piano. There was nothing else to do."
Solti believes the years of difficulty improved his art. Traveling the globe, he faced competition he would not have seen had he stayed in Hungary.
"I am grateful for all the hardness and suffering, because that enabled me to be a conductor," Solti says. Today's conductors, he says, move up too easily, too quickly. "Anyone with good talent can get an orchestra now. Probably the fight has gone out of conductors. There are so many orchestras now that the young ones don't want to go through the pain of opera conducting. They don't have the suffering."
Political swings stole Solti's time, but later offered him chances. After the war, American occupation officials looking to revive the German music scene without the involvement of former Nazis turned to Solti. He became music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.
"The hunger for music and art was so great in Germany after the war," he recalls. "In 1946 in Munich, in the time of the strictest rationing, I could buy food for opera tickets. In the Eastern countries, they have always been able to go to hear music. The hunger is not the same."
Solti's hunger for music shows no signs of waning. He is retiring from Chicago, but will take on new conducting duties at Salzburg.
Leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit for the Verdi last weekend, Solti (no slouch when it comes to ego -- he once suggested that Chicago erect a statue of him) was charmingly unassuming. Shoulders hunched over, he seemed almost slight, pushing the players along with tight, intense motions.
He is not flashy, but he moves constantly. He slashes the air in quick, short stabs, and those who have worked with him say he can bring discipline to a difficult orchestra with remarkable speed. The Solti method, orchestra members say, is a mix of shoving, whipping, pleading and demanding -- with a sprinkling of some secret ingredient that has produced orchestras that combine enviable control with a rich, enticing tone.
Solti, a prolific conductor who has won more Grammy Awards than any other artist (29), has no plans to retire. Rather, he has returned to his beginnings. In the past three years, after not playing piano for decades, Solti has become a soloist once more.
He has recorded a disc of Mozart concertos for two and three pianos, with Daniel Barenboim (his successor in Chicago) and Andras Schiff. And he plans further recordings of Schubert lieder.
"My fingers become more and more like Hungarian salami over the years," Solti says. "But it is like swimming -- if you played very well, you never forget."