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Wolfgang Sawallisch
Wolfgang Sawallisch

Conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch died on Friday (22 February) at his home in Grassau, Germany. He was 89.

Wolfgang Sawallisch was highly regarded for his interpretation of the Germanic classics, particularly Bruckner and Richard Strauss.

He’s perhaps best known to American music lovers for his decade as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1993. Eugene Ormandy had first invited Sawallisch to guest-conduct in 1966, and over the years he’d made several recordings with Philadephia. When Riccardo Muti was ready to relinquish the Philadelphia podium, it happened that Sawallisch was equally ready to move on from Munich, and the deal was sealed.

Curiously, though, one of Sawallisch’s most famous Philadelphia concerts didn’t actually involve conducting the orchestra.

It was in February of 1994. A blizzard had effectively shut down Philadelphia, and most of the orchestra members couldn’t get to the Academy of Music. Sawallisch didn’t miss a beat. At his prompting, the Academy threw open the doors to the public – no admission charge. About 600 stalwart concert goers, including the few orchestra members who’d made it to the hall, heard Sawallisch play the scheduled Wagner program on the piano, including the first act of Die Walk├╝re. This was no mean feat! Piano reductions of Wagner’s music are fiendishly difficult. However, Sawallisch had been working with opera singers since his teenage years. This music was in his bones and his fingers.

Although he continued to guest-conduct the orchestra after making the transition to conductor laureate in 2003, in 2006 Sawallisch announced that he was retiring from active conducting. He said was afflicted with orthostatic hypotension, a malady characterized by sudden and unpredictable declines in blood pressure which can cause fainting and dizziness.

Further reading:

Wolfgang Sawallisch obituary at New York Times (registration may be required)

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