Georg Solti Conducts Youth Project

Handpicked young musicians taste professional performance under the maestro's baton

CARNEGIE Hall is ultimately just a building, albeit a very grand building with an illustrious history in the music world. It exists to present performers to the public, but it is not a performing institution itself. That's what makes its educational efforts so remarkable: It has to be creative.

An example of that creativity came to fruition in two recent concerts, in which a top-flight student orchestra, assembled by Carnegie, performed under the baton of Sir Georg Solti, one of the last great thundering conductors with feet planted firmly in the 19th century.

The concerts, held June 13 and 21, were part of what Carnegie called ``The Solti Orchestral Project,'' a two-week intensive introduction to professional orchestra life for some 90 young American musicians. Those selected from the pool of more than 430 applicants joined 15 professional players who occupied the principal chairs of each section. The students worked in sectional rehearsals with their professional counterparts and in full orchestra rehearsals under the maestro himself.

Remarkably, for an orchestra that had only existed for two weeks, the ensemble had a cohesion and individuality of sound that bested many of the fully professional orchestras that have played on Carnegie's stage. The young wind and brass players played with a precision and beauty of sound that belied their age. The strings had a rare richness and uniformity of sound.

The technical prowess of the group can be credited to American conservatories. For better and worse the coherency of the ensemble - its basic sound or profile - can be attributed to Solti. Perhaps because the players were so young and the conductor such a legend, the orchestra bore his unique stamp, a mark he also placed on the Chicago Symphony during the 22 years he presided as its music director (1969-1991).

And what is that mark? Think brass. Think loud and fast. Imagine a sound not so much sculpted as hewn in rough stone. At his best, Solti can turn the clash of great monolithic chunks of sound into an orgy of excitement; he can produce performances of rare magisterial power. At his worst, he overwhelms music with a harsh, overbearing and far-too-titanic approach.

Both Soltis were on display at the two well-attended public performances. The first program, apparently designed as a get-to-know-each-other exercise, in- cluded familiar and reasonably elemental works: Wagner's Overture to ``Die Meistersinger,'' Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9. The second more challenging program included Brahms's ``Variations on a Theme by Haydn,'' Richard Strauss's ``Don Juan,'' and Barts ``Concerto for Orchestra.''

The result was a mixed bag. The more classical pieces - the Beethoven and Brahms - suffered most, the Brahms especially lacking in focus and filled with empty bombast. The Strauss was exciting and the Bartok - a Hungarian composer presumably close to the heart of the Hungarian Solti - came off most impressively.

These performances were, as several critics suggested, primarily opportunities for Solti to bask in the adulation of his New York fans. And bask he did, lingering long on the podium and making strange arm gestures that seemed reminiscent of a bad comic pumping a crowd for more laughs. Solti also gave encores both evenings; if these had been solo recitals the length and intensity of applause would have merited encores, but orchestral encores are very rare and one felt that perhaps he was a little too eager to keep conducting.

And yet the public performances were perhaps the least-important part of the Solti Project. Carnegie was more concerned with what went on behind the scenes, the day-to-day putting-together of music that required an immense logistical effort with rehearsals happening all over town. What mattered was what each of the young players got out of these sessions.

It was hard to tell from the auditorium exactly what the students would come away with after their rehearsals with Solti. One full-orchestral rehearsal early in the two-week program revealed Solti mostly playing with balance - and, true to form, asking for more volume from his band. Solti joked with the players on occasion, but also spent a great deal of time ``tuning'' them as if they were an unthinking, mechanical machine. The smaller sectional rehearsals no doubt provided more tangible, useful insights for the students.

The Solti Project is but one of several professional training workshops that Carnegie sponsors each year. Previous workshops have been given by Pierre Boulez, Robert Shaw, Alfred Brendel, Isaac Stern, and Marilyn Horne. A sampling of several of these past workshops revealed star musicians who are much better pedagogues than Solti, legends in their time who can also talk the gritty detail of technique. Solti's workshop was not representative of the best of these events.

But one shouldn't diminish the excitement of playing under Solti, a musician who cut a wide swath through the musical life of our century. And one shouldn't diminish the excitement of playing in Carnegie Hall. Although it may be just a building, Carnegie has found more constructive ways of contributing to the education of musicians than many performing institutions of equal stature and resources.

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