WHEN Sir Georg Solti receives his Kennedy Center Honor this Sunday in a ceremony at the Opera House of the Kennedy Center in Washington, it will be the fullest recognition to date of the impact this remarkable conductor has had on classical music in America.
It might at first seem strange that a musician forced out of his native Hungary by World War II, now a British subject (he was knighted in 1972), should be receiving this particular award. Even the maestro was at first surprised. ``I never thought of it,'' he says, ``because this is an American award, basically. But I am very happy about it.''
From the vantage point of 1993, it is all too easy to take for granted Solti's unprecedented accomplishments during his Chicago Symphony Orchestra tenure. Within a few years after assuming the position of music director, he had restored this great orchestra and added a precision, tonal brilliance, and sense of near-infallible virtuosity that electrified the world, transforming the CSO into America's internationally acclaimed representative of New World orchestral standards.
Together, they performed a Mahler Fifth Symphony that - in the concert halls and on records - set new standards for dazzling technical display wedded to a musical sensibility of almost unbearable vitality and tension. Everywhere Solti and the CSO went, the standing ovations and delirious press reviews were almost a foregone conclusion.
In New York, the CSO's Carnegie Hall subscription series was, for a long time, the hardest ticket to acquire, and orchestra and maestro were regularly accorded ovations rare even in the more boisterous environment of an opera house. In many ways, Solti changed the way Americans, and the world, heard music either in the concert hall or on recordings, and his tenure in Chicago was the stuff of magic.
``It was a very lucky period,'' Solti says. ``The chemistry with the Chicago Symphony was a good one - you can hear that. There are certain ground elements which we both like - the clean ensembles, the exceptional precision, the dynamic beauty going up to the extreme ends of volume. The beauty of the Chicago Symphony, I cannot repeat enough, is the tremendous desire for making good music, a tout prix! That's why they are so good.''
Solti was hardly an unknown when he took over the CSO in 1969. He was already a well-established figure in European music, especially opera: At the time, he was still head of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in London, and had also served as the head of both Munich's Bavarian State Opera (1946-1952) and the Frankfurt Opera (1952-1961). And he was a major recording star: For London Records (Decca in Europe) he had already made history with the first complete recording (accomplished over a nine-year period) of Richard Wagner's massive four-opera ``Ring'' cycle.
Solti's first recordings of Mahler's Second (``Resurrection'') and Ninth Symphonies, with the London Symphony Orchestra, were acclaimed both as hair-raising accounts of the works themselves, as well as spectacular realizations of the possibilities of stereo sound.
The recording prominence continued throughout his CSO tenure, with complete cycles of the symphonies of Mahler, Brahms, and Beethoven (twice), among other achievements.
Last month, I heard him conduct a stirring account of Haydn's ``The Creation,'' which was being recorded live for future release. Solti is now in the Guinness Book of World Records as the recipient of the most Grammy Awards - 31 to date.
The maestro has always found the recording process to be a constantly instructive experience. ``I think what is most essential for a recording conductor is a critical sense. You have no time to hear a tape twice, because during the sessions they will play it for you only once, and that's it. In that time, you must make up your mind very quickly what is wrong - not what is good but what is bad in terms of balance, tempo, distortion, dynamics. This is probably my best side as a musician, that I have a very acute critical sense.''
Solti is fully aware of the need to pass on his knowledge to the younger generation, to have the same impact on young musicians that a Richard Strauss, a Wilhelm Furtwangler, or an Arturo Toscanini had on him when he either worked with them or observed them in action.
This is why he is excited by, and committed to, the Solti Orchestral Project at Carnegie Hall, in which he will devote two weeks (June 8 to 22, 1994) to training orchestral players. Principals culled from the major orchestras of the US will sit next to hand-picked students who will learn from those section leaders and from Solti. He talks of doing a similarly master class the following year, working with young conductors, stressing again the importance of this kind of project.
As for the immediate future of music in America, one thing that concerns him greatly is new rules that allow people over 70 to continue working on full salary while drawing full pension. He plans to discuss this with President Clinton in Washington, when the Kennedy Center Honorees have dinner at the White House.
``This is very good social thinking,'' he says, ``but totally wrong for an orchestra, because this means that no younger players can get in. In 10 years time, you will have an orchestra aged between 70 and 100! I think this is against all artistic conscience.''