Such displays of passion, his transcendent musicality and his unimpeachable command of the repertoire from his native Germany made Mr. Sawallisch one of the most celebrated conductors of his generation. He died Feb. 22 at 89 at his home in Grassau, Bavaria.
His death was announced by the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where he forged his reputation in Europe before capping his career in the United States with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The immediate cause was not reported, but Mr. Sawallisch had been diagnosed with extreme fatigue at the time of his retirement a decade ago.
In an era of celebrity conductors, Mr. Sawallisch exemplified a different breed of maestro. Disinclined to hobnob with VIPs, he sometimes became so engrossed in his music that he was said to have taken his meals in silence. At the podium, he tended not to brandish his baton, as some of his showier colleagues liked to do, but rather to coax from the orchestra pit all the nuance of Strauss and the pathos of Beethoven.
For nearly his entire career, Mr. Sawallisch was sought by prestigious orchestras around the world. He was reportedly the youngest conductor of the Wagnerian Bayreuth Festival in Germany. He led the Vienna Symphony, the Hamburg Philharmonic and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva for about a decade each, but he was most associated with the Bavarian State Opera. There he served as music director and general director for more than 20 years before moving to Philadelphia in 1993.
In Philadelphia, Mr. Sawallisch found himself at the head of one of the most beloved orchestras in the world and one that had been led by a succession of high priests in classical music: Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy and Riccardo Muti. Mr. Sawallisch continued in their tradition. He was, music critic Donal Henahan wrote in the Times, one of the few conductors who could “beat time with one hand and shape fluid phrases with the other.”
Mr. Sawallisch was known to shoot “famously dirty looks” at musicians who did not perform up to his standards, the Philadelphia Inquirer once noted. But he so skillfully brought out the best in them that they venerated him just the same.
“The relationship between the musicians and myself gives me personally more liberty, more possibility to penetrate more into different music, ja?” he once told the Inquirer. “We can trust each other.”