Obituary: Lady Valerie Solti, TV presenter and arts patron

Lady Valerie Solti, who has died at 83, was a former pupil of Leeds Girls’ High School who, as Valerie Pitts, became a BBC television presenter in the 1960s and married the Hungarian-British conductor, Sir Georg Solti. After his death, she and their daughters set up the Solti Foundation which assists young musicians at the start of their careers.

Lady Solti

An ambassador for her home city, she supported the Leeds International Piano Competition and became a confidante to its co-founder Dame Fanny Waterman.

Born in 1937, she was the daughter of William Pitts, secretary to the Lord Mayor of Leeds, and his wife, Nancy. At the Girls’ High School she was, by her own admission, a mediocre musician, who said later that she “thrashed” her way through all kinds of pieces.

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But she was a natural performer, and before going on to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in 1953 she played Olivia in Twelfth Night for the junior branch of Leeds College of Music. By 1958, with repertory experience under her belt, she was a stage manager at the Globe Theatre, London.

At the same time she was developing a taste for television, working on North East Roundabout, the first local news programme from the new Tyne Tees ITV franchise in Newcastle, where her interviewees included the Archbishop of Canterbury and the singer Paul Robeson.

In 1960 she moved to the BBC as an announcer and married her first husband, James Sargant, a stage manager at Sadler’s Wells. She presented the regional news in the South of England and had a small role as a patient in the 1961 Bob Monkhouse comedy Dentist On The Job. But it was the children’s programme Play School, on the newly-established BBC2, that was to be her best-known TV role. She also appeared as a panellist on the quiz show, Face The Music.

She met Solti in 1964, when she was arts reporter for the BBC magazine, Town and Around. Short of an item for the next programme, she rang a contact at Covent Garden, who told her: “There’s always Solti”. Ms Pitts asked only if he could speak English.

Arriving at his hotel room she found him clothed only in towels, looking, as she put it, “like a prize fighter”. She helped him dress and then, having conducted the interview, agreed to join him for lunch.

She later recalled: “A few days later, after constant telephone calls and red roses, he informed me that the rest of my life had to be spent with him. It seemed preposterous at the time. But that’s what happened.”

Her parents were horrified when she proposed leaving her husband for Solti, who was 25 years her senior and separated from his wife of 16 years. “They had brought up their daughter with a strong sense of values and nothing like this had ever happened in their family before,” Solti said.

He and Valerie married in November 1967. Soon afterwards he took British nationality and in 1971 he was knighted.

She developed a passionate advocacy for the arts, supporting amongst other cultural institutions the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Trust, the Liszt Academy, the Frankfurt Conducting Competition and the World Orchestra for Peace, which her husband founded. The couple divided their time between London and Chicago, where Solti was musical director of the symphony orchestra.

After his death in 1997, Valerie created the Solti Foundation, to continue his work in helping young musicians. She went on to co-found the Georg Solti Accademia in 2004. She was also an early and lifelong supporter of Opera North and held a reception for them in London, in 2019.

Lady Solti is survived by her daughters, Gabrielle, who is head of the Primary School at The Grammar School at Leeds, and Claudia, an actress and director.