Wolfgang Sawallisch, celebrated German conductor who directed the Philadelphia Orchestra, dies at 89

FILE PHOTO - Wolfgang Sawallisch, the revered conductor and former director of the Bavarian State Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra, died Feb. 22. He was 89.

During his first season as music director of the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch found himself in trouble. A snowstorm had crippled the city and stranded many of his orchestra members shortly before a concert. The program was to feature the works of Richard Wagner — soaring, swelling music that required every musician and every instrument in the pit.

Most conductors, finding themselves sans orchestra, would have canceled the performance. Mr. Sawallisch, the New York Times reported, could bring himself to do nothing of the sort. He decided to accompany the vocalists on the piano, and to offer free admission to any listener plucky enough to trek through the snow to the music hall.

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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.”

Mr. Sawallisch was most at home with the music of German composers such as Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Richard Strauss. The music critic David Patrick Stearns, writing in the Inquirer in 2000, described Mr. Sawallisch as “the greatest living Strauss conductor in an era loaded with excellent ones.”

Of his recordings, the most noted ones included performances by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and a 1959 recording of Strauss’s opera “Capriccio” featuring soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

Some critics regarded Mr. Sawallisch as too traditional, too inclined to hew to the canon. Mr. Sawallisch was unmoved. “I am not a friend of extremely contemporary music,” he told the Times in 1990, “with electronic sounds and so on.’’

On at least one occasion, he looked on modernity with a sense of humor. In 2000, a baton he had used to conduct Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” — the number later featured in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — was sent into outer space aboard the Discovery.

“I’m happy to have my baton go up,” Mr. Sawallisch said, “so long as I don’t have to.”

Wolfgang Sawallisch was born Aug. 26, 1923, in Munich. He studied the piano as a boy and wanted to be a concert pianist, until he heard an opera at 11.

“I was so fascinated by the sounds of the orchestra and the singers and the sight of the whole production on the stage,” he once told an interviewer, “that I decided immediately to change my mind and study to be a conductor.”

He received only limited musical training before being drafted for military service during World War II. Mr. Sawallisch was sent to the front in Italy and held prisoner by the British until the end of the war.

His first professional job was as an opera coach in Augsburg, in Bavaria. In 1953, the year after marrying the singer Mechthild Schmid, he successfully auditioned for the job of music director in Aachen.

Mr. Sawallisch made his American debut in 1964 with the Vienna Symphony and was a frequent guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra before getting the top job in 1993. He was modest about his accomplishments with the institution. “How do you improve on greatness,” he told the Times as he approached retirement. “I simply wanted to maintain it.”

Mr. Sawallisch’s son was reported to have died earlier this year, and his wife died in 1998. After her death, many reviewers noted the intense grief that seemed to fill Mr. Sawallisch’s music.

As a conductor, he had been deeply sensitive to loss. Once, in an interview with the Inquirer, he spoke about Beethoven and the suffering the composer endured as he lost his hearing.

“It must’ve been a martyrdom,” he said, “to be full of music, to have the sounds within himself but not be able to hear the expression of it.”

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