Maestro Sawallisch, who led Philadelphia Orchestra for a decade, dies at 89

Wolfgang Sawallisch, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1993 to 2003, died in his home in Grassau, Germany, Friday. He was 89 years old.

An oft-told story, from the winter of 1994, puts Wolfgang Sawallisch at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra during a ferocious snowstorm. Much of the audience and many of the musicians could not make it to the Academy of Music on Broad Street for the performance of an opera by Wagner.

Sawallisch decided the show must go on. Without an orchestra, the conductor sat at a piano and accompanied the singers himself, translating the orchestra score to the keyboard on the fly.

“It’s an absolutely a new experience,” Sawallisch warned the audience beforehand, and added with a chuckle, “Let’s see what happens.”

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It was note-perfect.

Sawallisch was usually not so devil-may-care. Born in 1923, and trained on a heavy diet of Mozart, Schumann and Wagner, he had a reputation as a staunch champion of the classical canon.

The orchestra’s concertmaster, David Kim, says he may be the last of the great traditionalists.

“He was like your favorite uncle or grandfather. He was a man of routine,” said Kim. “Every intermission he would be in his dressing room and put his feet up on his coffee table, and have a Coke. He had his favorite hotel rooms in Tokyo and Berlin. He was a man of routine.”

With the baton, he was the boss

Rarely seen without tie and matching vest, Sawallisch conducted himself and his orchestra in a formal manner. He preferred to be addressed as “maestro” where other conductors often wave off the title. He was an accomplished pianist and enjoyed joining his musicians to play chamber music.

“When he was on the podium with the baton, he was the boss,” said Kim, “But when he played the piano … he became more vulnerable, and kind of one of the guys.”

Sawallisch was 70 years old when he was tapped to be music director in 1993. (By comparison, the orchestra’s new music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, is 37.) He arrived with an established, conservative reputation, having spent 20 years leading the Bavarian State Opera.

The president of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association during Sawallisch’s tenure as music director, Joe Kluger, said the world changed during Sawallisch’s 10 years with the orchestra, and Sawallisch changed along with it.

“I think it was 1997 when we decided to do a concert streaming on the Internet,” said Kluger. “Today that sounds like no big deal. But I’m telling you, in 1997 nobody else had done it.”

Rising to the occasion in the depths of sorrow

In 2001, five days after the 9/11 attacks, the orchestra participated in a free concert at the Mann Center, performing patriotic songs and classical movements. The event, televised by WHYY, was meant to be a gesture to the city and the world.

Sawallisch was stuck in Germany, because all the flights were canceled, remembered Kluger.

“He said, I will do whatever it takes to be there. He really understood how important music would be in such a tragedy, to help people deal with the crisis,” Kluger said. “He did arrive, and led one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

The orchestra is currently in the middle of concert series honoring another of its legendary directors, Leopold Stokowski. On Sunday, it performed a brief tribute to Sawallisch before its matinee concert.

A documentary film about Wolfgang Sawallisch, hosted by Marty Moss-Coane, can be seen below. 



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