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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 Walküre. 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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The search below will show you some of the most beautiful photos I’ve ever seen of England’s countryside, the region that has inspired generations of English composers. It’s Stratford, Bath and Oxford, where you’ll find thatched roofs and true Tudor architectural homes along winding country roads rolling through undulating hills. These images make the countryside in Lord of the Rings look like old abandoned factories in former eastern-block Soviet nations.

England’s countryside

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Joe Short is the longtime stage manager of the Cleveland Orchestra and a good friend to many of the musicians, but he’s apparently having more fun making sure the stage looks right and all the instruments are safe on the COYO tour than on the many tours he’s made with the parent orchestra. He says “It’s really nice to see how excited the kids are to be over here.”

Many of the larger instruments were rented in Vienna, but they all have to get to the right place at the right time and the orchestra apparently wanted to make sure a pro was in charge when they sent Joe Short over with the young players.

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Americans have stopped growing.  For nearly 100 years, data put together by experts has shown that children and adolescents grew about an inch and a half taller every 20 years.  But the Centers for Disease Control has stated that Americans’ average height has hit its peak (although my two sons must have not been told this). 

I bring this up because there were so many great composers who were considered short in stature, even in their day.   Weber, Mozart, Schubert, and many others including Beethoven were 5’4” or shorter. 

But Beethoven’s hands were disproportionately large.  A famous artist of his day, Josef Danhauser, painted the Beethoven’s hands the day after he died.

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Below are two links, each complimenting the other.

The first one is for you to hear.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-FUEidQc-E

It’s a recording of Giacomo Puccini and his wife from 1907. They stopped by a studio while on a visit to New York City. Both were quite happy with the hospitality the dignitaries and fans had shown them. Their address is mostly in Italian, but even if you don’t understand the language, you’ll hear him say “New York.” Just before his entourage starts to applaud, he says, “America, forever!”.

The next click will get you to a film of the streets of New York City, made about the same time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=954L9MpfCEo

It’s just traffic, but use your imagination a little bit. Look at the windows of the buildings. Behind one of them might be the very studio where the above recording was made.

In those days, a recording studio was nothing like today’s. Electricity was used mainly for lighting. The first “electrical” recordings (made with microphones, amplifiers, and electric cutters) were still almost 2 decades in the future.

The recordings of 1907 were acoustical – that is, they were made with nothing more than the faint energy of the sound waves themselves. The sound was directed from a small room into a huge cone (often several feet in diameter). The cone went through the wall into the next room. Where it came to a point was a vibrating diaphragm with a needle attached. The needle inscribed a groove onto a wax cylinder (Edison system) or a flat gramophone disc (Berliner system).

Modern studios are soundproof, but that was hardly necessary in those days. The acoustical recording equipment was so insensitive that any noise beyond a few feet from the cone was not picked up.

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