Chicago — For his penultimate weekend with his venerable orchestra this season, Sir Georg Solti ascended the podium like a ninth-inning pitcher taking the mound to seal a well-earned victory.
Although six weeks are left in the orchestra's subscriber season, it is the end of a highly successful year here for Sir Georg, highlighted by smashing receptions to performances of ''Moses and Aaron'' and a recent tour of Southeastern United States. Last weekend, with the savvy of a veteran known for his fastballs, the venerable maestro pitched three straight change-of-pace strikes that brought the hometown crowds to their feet.
They came in the form of three all-Mozart evenings - unexpected fare from the man who built a symphony known for its Brahms, Mahler, and Wagner. The brass and percussion sections needed for those composer's rich and resounding works stayed home for the most part. And the tie-and-tails-bedecked chamber orchestra that took the stage here seemed dwarfed by scarlet-balustraded Orchestra Hall, usually intimate by major-city concert hall standards.
But then came the lilting melodies of Mozart, dainty by comparison with the rich tapestries of the Germanic composers - but foot-stomping crowd pleasers in their own way. Solti chose three of Mozart's best-known late works - his only two symphonies in minor keys (Nos. 25 and 40 in G minor) and Concerto in C major (K.503).
The danger with all-Mozart programs is overwhelming the audience with easy-listening sweetness or wearing it down with metronomic monotony. Solti did at least two things to avoid this situation: He interspersed the two minor-key symphonies with a concerto in a major key, and brought in a pianist capable of taking the tempo and running with it.
You need someone who will be doggedly loyal to the director's one-and-a, two-and-a during the tutti movements, but willing to take chances when alone in the spotlight. And he must be someone who will deliver the tempo back to the conductor intact when it's time for the orchestra to reenter the music.
Hungarian Solti chose another Hungarian, Peter Frankl, for the task, and the rapport seemed not only to work, but to come off effortlessly.
Almost imposingly tall, Frankl is a striking figure with wavy, slate-gray hair, punctuated with distinctive tufts of white at the temples. He attacked the concerto with ebullient and contagious confidence and gave the otherwise merely pleasant concerts their needed spark of greatness. His strength - besides the crystal clarity that virtually defines vintage Mozart - was the ignited tempos he seemed to lend to the music. This was especially evident in each night's allegretto movement, when the score calls for much solo work interspersed with virtual duets with various woodwinds then horns. Solti and Frankl seemed like two football halfbacks, sprinting downfield, throwing the ball (in this case, the tempo) back and forth with aplomb and polished dexterity.
Frankl's weakness, although not as important in Mozart, was in dynamic range (variations from loud to soft).While the orchestra ranged from the hushed side of silence to the din of thundering fortissimos, Frankl's keyboard held the middle ground conservatively. And when he played alone, especially in sections demanding loud chords, the underlying strength of the music seemed gone.
Fortunately, that was not too often. Mozart is not made up of loud clamorings , but rather finely etched wisps and threads of interweaving melodies, folding into and out of themselves. Frankl was the needle pulling colored thread through the rich tapestries of sound. If the concerto was the hit of the evening and a nearly impossible act to follow, Mozart's 40th Symphony came as close to filling the bill as could be asked. Its only crime is that it is too short, like all Mozart symphonies. And as it is his next-to-last one, it contains all the composer's genius for theme development, recapitulation, and counterpoint. The conductor's job is simply to coach the orchestra in the intricate job of allowing all voices to be heard, keeping them distinct and unmuddied.
After this coming weekend's performances of McCabe (Concerto for Orchestra), and Elgar (''Sea Pictures'' and variations on an original theme, ''Enigma'') with Dame Janet Baker, Solti is off to Europe for obligations with the London Philharmonic. In July, he will direct the Bayreuth Symphony in Wagner's Ring Cycle.