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Remembering Wolfgang Sawallisch, A Conductor Who Blossomed In Philadelphia

The late conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, captured in rehearsals for a recording of Wagner's <em>Die Meistersinger</em>.
Vivianne Purdom
courtesy of EMI Classics
The late conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, captured in rehearsals for a recording of Wagner's Die Meistersinger.

German conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch died Friday evening at age 89 at home in Grassau, Germany, near Munich. His death was announced by the Bavarian State Opera, a company with which he was long associated. The pinnacle of his long career came not in his native country, however, but with a surprising decade-long tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra that began when he was 70 years old.

Sawallisch was heralded for his glowing and incisive interpretations of the staple German Romantic repertoire, particularly music by Wagner (see a complete performance of Das Rheingold below), Strauss and Bruckner.

Born in Munich in 1923, Sawallisch was a son of an insurance executive and very soon found his way to music. He began piano lessons at age 5, and five years later, after seeing a production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Munich's Bavarian State Opera — the same company he would lead for two decades — he decided he wanted to become a conductor.

His burgeoning career was interrupted when he was drafted into the German army during World War II and became a radio operator on the Italian front. He was captured by the English, and as a prisoner of war composed two string quartets. After the war, he finished his studies in Munich and was hired as an opera coach in the southern city of Augsburg in 1947.

Opera quickly formed the core of Sawallisch's work. After Augsburg, he was hired as music director of the regional opera house in Aachen — where his predecessors included Herbert von Karajan — followed by turns in Wiesbaden and Cologne. Stunningly, Sawallisch also turned down offers to conduct at the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera during this period, claiming he was not yet ready for those experiences. In the meantime, he led three orchestras: the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Hamburg Philharmonic and Geneva's Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.

But it was his 1971 engagement as music director of the Bavarian State Opera that did much to shape his international reputation, and he remained there for two decades with various titles — though not without criticism. Over his years in Munich, Sawallisch was increasingly viewed as too conservative in his tastes, both in terms of the repertoire and production values he favored. Eventually, after more than a decade of conflict with the head of all of Munich's theaters, Sawallisch resigned in 1992, swearing that he would never lead opera performances again.

Until the early 1990s, it appeared possible that Sawallisch's career would play out almost entirely in Europe. But in 1993, the Philadelphia Orchestra made what seemed at the time to be a counterintuitive decision: to bring the reliable though stodgy Sawallisch in to succeed the far more charismatic Riccardo Muti as the group's music director.

But somehow, Sawallisch's arrival in Philadelphia energized both him and the orchestra — and not always in the most subtle ways. Though much of this change in temperament has been attributed to the conductor's loss in 1998 of his beloved wife of 46 years, Mechthild, there were also more tangible elements to this evolution. During his ten-year tenure, he replaced more than a third of the ensemble's players, changing out more musicians than any conductor in Philadelphia since Leopold Stokowski. And astonishingly, after enduring so much criticism for his timid tastes in Germany, Sawallisch devoted the entire 1999-2000 Philadelphia season to 20th-century music and gave the premieres of major works by two young American composers, Aaron Jay Kernis and Jennifer Higdon. After he retired from the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2003, his concert appearances dwindled, and he retired to the Bavarian town of Grassau.

At their concert yesterday afternoon at Philadelphia's Verizon Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra played Wagner's Siegfried Idyll in Sawallisch's memory. As Peter Dobrin reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, concertmaster David Kim related a telling Sawallisch anecdote from the stage, recounting a tour tale that took place in Ames, Iowa. Before the performance, Kim mentioned to the conductor that he and the other players were holding back a bit to save their energies for a following date in Chicago. "He looked at me with a withering look," Kim said from the stage, "and said, 'We give 100 percent everywhere, every time we go on stage.' In a way, that's how Maestro Sawallisch lived his whole life."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.