Sunday, February 24, 2013

Wolfgang Sawallisch, 1923-2013

This morning my daily perusal of greeted me with the sad news of the death of Wolfgang Sawallisch, Conductor Laureate of the Philadelphia Orchestra and its Music Director from 1993-2003 (for a moving tribute, read the obituary of Philadelphia Inquirer Music Critic Peter Dobrin here).

Sawallisch was the last of his kind: an old school, traditionalist German conductor who rose methodically through the ranks until he reached heights matched by few others. He was the Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera from 1971-92 before becoming, at age 70, the Philadelphia Orchestra's sixth Music Director, a post he held with distinction for a decade.

When Sawallisch was appointed twenty years ago to replace the mercurial Riccardo Muti, I was somewhat disappointed. I had hoped they would hire Charles Dutoit, who was younger, the director of the Orchestra's summer programs at the Mann Music Center, and a well-recorded artist on London Records with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. Dutoit would indeed have been a good choice (he would later fill in as the Orchestra's Chief Conductor in the interim between the somewhat disastrous tenure of Christoph Eschenbach [2003-08] and the accession of the youthful Yannick Nézet-Séguin [2012-present]). But Sawallisch proved to be just what the Orchestra needed. Muti, with his razor sharp and often lean interpretations of the basic repertoire, had injected new life and energy into the Orchestra, which for decades  had, despite unparalleled levels of virtuosity, had grown stale with the velvety stodginess of the sound prompted by their long-term director, Eugene Ormandy. With Sawallisch, the famous "Philadelphia Sound" reappeared, though with more focus than had characterized the Ormandy tenure (see, for example, his early recordings of Bruckner's 4th Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, both on EMI). Later, Sawalllisch returned to his specialty, the music of Richard Strauss, producing fine recordings of many of his exquisite tone poems, including Ein Heldenleben and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Throughout his tenure, Sawallisch did what he did best: provide unabashedly musical performances without hype or the flair of more flamboyant, yet less musical, conductors.

Most importantly, however, Sawallisch was most responsible for bringing the Orchestra into the 21st century  by assuring the completion of the new music hall (the Verizon Center at the Kimmel Center) to replace the beautiful, but acoustically less-than-optimal, Academy of Music. Indeed, my favorite recordings of Sawallisch with the Orchestra are his complete set of Schumann Symphonies, recorded at the Kimmel Center in 2003. These embody his brilliance, not to mention that of the Orchestra he had, without fanfare, transformed (he replaced one-third of the orchestra's players in his decade of directorship, including the hires of concertmaster David Kim and principal trumpet David Bilger). Since Sawallisch's departure, the Orchestra has experienced lean times due both to Eschenbach's incompatibility and financial straits exacerbated by the economic downturn. Only now, with the fortuitous hiring of Nézet-Séguin and their gaining of a coveted recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, have these fortunes begun to change for the better. But one shudders to think what could have been the plight of this American treasure were it not for the leadership of Mr. Sawallisch. May he rest in peace.

I leave you with a video performance of Sawallisch and the Philadelphians playing the Introduction to Strauss's tone poem, Symphonia Domestica, in Köln in 2000.

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