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Wolfgang Sawallisch: An appreciation from a long-time Philadelphia Orchestra musician

I can say that, after 40 years of playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra and all of its renowned soloists, I consider Wolfgang Sawallisch the most impressive musician I have ever encountered. He was constantly studying; he was constantly practicing. For him, the music was everything.

The death of Maestro Wolfgang Sawallisch brought a flood of memories to me, musically and personally. Besides working under him as music director, I had the great fortune to have worked closely with him as a superb pianist. As second violinist of the Wister String Quartet, I shared 10 performances with him, from the great piano quintette literature. That experience is one of the most unforgettable of my career.

Sawallisch was not just a fine pianist but a great one. He possessed a stupendous virtuoso technique, combined with utmost beauty of sound and sensitivity as a chamber player. Many times I heard him say that conducting was his job, but playing piano was his great love.

Besides playing the violin with him at the keyboard, I also had the great pleasure of, on four occasions, performing four-hand piano literature with him, and on many occasions I was his page turner. In fact, I turned for him on that famous wintry night when, due to a heavy snow storm, a large number of the Philadelphia Orchestra could not get to the Academy of Music.

Awe-inspiring experiences

I was there early, doing accompanying duty for auditions, and I looked on when Maestro Sawallisch was informed that possibly a third of the orchestra could not get to that night’s performance. Putting his hand on his brow, he said, “Well, what shall we do? I guess I could play the part on the piano.”

That became, of course, the now-famous Wagner concert with Deborah Voigt and a chorus. Having started working with singers as a teenager, the maestro knew “Die Walküre” and “Tannhäuser” like the back of his hand, but these piano reductions are fearsomely difficult. Turning pages for him that night, I was simply awe-struck at the command and the technical brilliance of this man’s playing.

Indeed, I felt just as impressed as I would have been at seeing a great solo pianist like Vladimir Horowitz. The concert was recorded and issued as a fund-raising premium. Even listening to it today, my awe remains.

Another such experience came when I turned pages for him during the Strauss Violin Sonata, which he performed with Sarah Chang for one of Barbara Govatos’s Home Aid Concerts. This is a fiendishly difficult piano part, which even he said was “diabolical” in its technical demands.

Under his directorship, we in the orchestra were all impressed at the maestro’s musicality and insight into virtually every era of music he chose to perform. His beloved Dvořák came through with lyrical grace, mixed with gentle drama. While his Bruckner was quite simply an emotionally spiritual experience.

‘The most impresssive’

Virtually every rehearsal with him became a learning experience, both musically and in the honesty and integrity with which he pursued his musical visions. He loved lighter music as much as “great” music, and he took great joy in Strauss waltzes. He even conducted Bernstein’s “West Side Story” with infectious style and authentic “swing.”

At his retirement, brought on sadly by declining health, one of the most touching and telling comments came from a colleague, who said Sawallisch was one of the very few directors he had ever encountered, anywhere, who, at the end of his tenure, the orchestra actually like (loved!) more than at the beginning of his tenure. This is indeed high praise in a profession where too often the old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” is only too true.

On a personal level, I can say that, after 40 years of playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra and all of its renowned soloists, I consider Wolfgang Sawallisch the most impressive musician I have ever encountered. He was constantly studying; he was constantly practicing. For him, the music was everything. He was not interested in small talk or gossip or any kind of orchestra politics. For him, the music and the honest presentation of that music was a life force known to a select few.

I am thankful my life was touched by him. Working with Wolfgang Sawallisch was, and remains, a profound experience that still inspires me every day.

Goodbye and thank you, dear Maestro.

Davyd Booth plays second violin for the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he joined in 1973. He made his professional debut at 13 and toured the United States as a soloist for four years. Since 1998, Booth has been the harpsichordist for The Philadelphia Orchestra. He also serves as the Orchestra’s second keyboard player, and has been featured on piano, celesta, harmonium, organ, synthesizer, and accordion. He has played under the direction of Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Christoph Eschenbach, Charles Dutoit, and, now, Yanick Nézet-Séguin.

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