Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sir Georg Solti and The Bum Note

The famous conductor’s face winced with rage. In the middle of the best-known horn fanfare in music, the principal horn player fluffed his note: the triumphant opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was ruined. In front of a packed Royal Albert Hall, it was being filmed for millions. Sir Georg Solti was the conductor and I was the director.

Filmed classical concerts got a mixed press last week. Next month British cinemas will be showing the Berlin Philharmonic in 3D. I heard one pundit, Norman Lebrecht, complain vociferously on Radio 4: “It’s a poor substitute for the real thing. When you go to a concert you sit for an hour, you don’t move, you don’t cough, you barely breathe and you become, as it were, one with the musicians. When you watch it in 3D on a screen, you can be popping popcorn, you can be whispering to your neighbour… there is none of the concentration of the real thing”.

Such arrogance. This film of one of the world’s great orchestras will be eagerly awaited by all music lovers, just as opera fans will fill the Tyneside Cinema in May to watch opera live from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York for just £22 a ticket. I guarantee there’ll be less coughing in the cinema than in the champagne-soaked corporate aisles of the Met.

Sure, nothing can beat the atmosphere of a concert hall, but film has two distinct advantages: the sound and the picture. Surround sound will place everyone in the centre of the auditorium, while the pictures will guarantee the best seat in the house. Sir Georg Solti taught me that.

A week before the concert I went to his house in Elsworthy Road in North London clutching my Beethoven pocket score. His charming wife, former children’s television presenter Valerie Pitts, brought us coffee and biscuits. Beethoven’s 5th held a special significance for Solti: he first heard it at the age of 14, conducted by the great Erich Kleiber, and immediately resolved to become a conductor. Now 72 and renowned for his fearsome passion and refusal to accept second best, what Solti didn’t know was that this was my first attempt at directing a classical concert.

“Pa-pa-pa-paaah” he began. And off he went, singing and humming his way through, dissecting it, telling me which instruments to feature and which to ignore. He particularly reminded me not to miss the solo horns in Bar 59. I tried to follow the score as he zoomed through the pages, but found it hard to take my eyes off his animated, passionate face: I was transfixed by his expressive personality and strength.

As an amateur musician, I realised how lucky I was: in concerts you only see the conductor’s back. So I asked Solti a question: would he mind if I put a camera on stage, right in the middle of the second violins, facing him. His big eyes opened wide: “Me? Why would you want to film me so close?” But his eyes were twinkling his agreement.

So we hid an unmanned camera directly under the conductor’s podium to enable the viewers to see what the audience never could, including the moment when Solti turned puce as the horn player destroyed Bar 59. He threw the offender a withering glance, then pulled the orchestra together, and furiously revved up a performance that’s still available on CD today.

Two weeks later, I went back to Elsworthy Road clutching the edited film. We sat in his sitting room and switched on the video. As we approached the offending bar, he closed his eyes and sighed. Then he opened them wide and burst into the biggest smile.

“How did you do that?” he asked. “The repeat,” I said, “I replaced the bad horns with the repeat”.

“Genius”, he said. Now we were both smiling.

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