Tributes to Wolfgang Sawallisch

Sawallisch debut
Sawallisch at his Philadelphia Orchestra debut in 1966. (Photo: Adrian Siegel Collection, Philadelphia Orchestra Archives)

Reflections on Wolfgang Sawallisch have been coming in steadily this morning. Here are some lovely tributes, which, like Sawallisch himself, eschew hyperbole for a specificity and focus on the music. We will continue to add comments and photographs throughout the day.

Peter Alward, former president of EMI Classics: "I visited him in Grassau exactly one month ago. I found him very frail but in full possession of all his mental faculties, both interested in and interesting on all aspects of the current musical world. The musical world has really been deprived of one of its most experienced and respected figures. His type of all-round musical ability scarcely exists today. It was a privilege to know him - and thank heavens so much of his legacy has been preserved for posterity." More from Alward here.

Robin Mitchell-Boyask, listener: "I've truly missed his presence here. I don't think anyone has ever got quite The Sound out of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Such a gentleman as well. A great musician who happened to be a conductor. It's a shame his discography isn't better appreciated. His wonderful Bayreuth Wagner recordings have become hard to find. On a more local note, I shall never forget a visit to Curtis early in his tenure, to work on the Bruckner 7th. He played through about 10 minutes of the first movement, then stopped the kids and said/asked: 'You've never played Bruckner, have you?' He worked on various phrasings with them, often singing the lines in that lovely voice of his, and, after about another hour, they sounded like they were somewhere between Munich and Vienna. It was almost miraculous."

David Wetherill, former associate and co-principal hornist: "In addition to his time in Philadelphia, I played with him at La Scala, where he did Siegfried, as well as a number of orchestral programs. He was a fine conductor with a clear, elegant technique, a lost art nowadays. We played on his beat, not after, because everyone knew where it was. He controlled the sound with the stroke of his baton. The Philadelphia Orchestra sounded great with him, especially in his realm of 18th-19th century Germanic music. I performed a Mozart concerto with him as well as the Schumann Konzertstuck, two personal highlights of my career."

Joseph H. Kluger, former Philadelphia Orchestra president. "He was very formal, but at the same time he was very forward looking. In 1996 and 1997 when people were just beginning to talk about the Internet, he quickly embraced the idea of doing an online concert and he even participated in a chat room afterwards. The idea of dedicating the last season of the century to works premiered in the 20th century - that was his idea. A lot of times you get very interesting ideas that the artistic administrator cooks up for which the music director gets credit. He wanted to make clear that these were canons of the repertoire, but what moved that forward was the idea of premiering new works, because those works deserved to be added to the repertoire."

Current Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin: “The Philadelphia Orchestra family is profoundly saddened to hear of the death of its beloved former music director, conductor laureate Wolfgang Sawallisch. During his ten-year tenure as music director he cared deeply for the orchestra and its musicians, helped preserve and nurture our Philadelphia Sound, and enriched and expanded upon the orchestra’s century-old tradition of excellence, leaving us an enduring legacy of artistic achievements. Off the podium he was also a dear friend to many in the orchestra and in the Philadelphia community. He has been missed, and his memory will be treasured.”

Simon Woods, former Philadelphia Orchestra artistic administrator, current Seattle Symphony Orchestra chief: "Right at the very end of his time in Philadelphia, his penultimate concert, was Beethoven Six and Schumann Second, he felt the Second Symphony was the greatest, and we were both excited this was the end of the Schumann cycle. It was an incredible concert. He was very sick, he could hardly stand up. It was a real question about whether he would perform, but he did. After one of the performances, there was a huge ovation, and it was an incredible moment for him. And it was a moment of glory for him. And I walked backstage and I greeted him, and I said something like, 'Maestro, what an achievement you’ve made,' and he totally deflected it. He said, 'That is great music, ja, that is great music.' Even at that moment of greatness for him, he was still focused on the music."

Curtis Institute of Music president Roberto Díaz: "People adored him because of his integrity as a person and as a musician. That was what defined him. How many times do you have a music director walk away from an orchestra and the orchestra begs him to stay and come back? That says it all right there. His connection with Philadelphia was always present, he always wanted to know about the orchestra, and obviously he was heart-broken about the situation, he saw this orchestra was going through a lot of turmoil and he felt helpless in not being able to help. That was always on his mind. He always appreciated any news that he got from anyone here, it was an extended family for him."

Philadelphia Orchestra principal trumpeter David Bilger: "It is hard to put into words how strongly the passing of the Maestro has affected me. He was my musical father, and I value each and every week that I was able to have spent with him during his years in Philadelphia. Maestro Sawallisch was the last of a generation of conductors whose focus was solely on the musical score. I always had the feeling that his philosophy was to perform the music with, as he put it, 'deep intern(al) personal feeling,' and that the audiences would be moved in a similar way. What was amazing to me about the Maestro was how I could feel continual personal musical growth under his watchful eye. Every rehearsal felt like an opportunity to learn how he understood the music, and he was able to communicate his vast knowledge in a meaningful and fatherly way. On a first rehearsal of Schumann's Second Symphony, we read the difficult fast passages that are on every violin audition. As is often the case in this orchestra, it was technically superb the first time through. The Maestro stopped, put down his baton and smiled his special smile. He looked at us and said, 'That was very good, but where is the love?' He picked up his baton, tapped the music stand and started again. What has been previously excellent became extraordinary. The Maestro felt, especially after the passing of his wife, that the orchestra was his family, and the connection was palpable. I think that the concerts in those last years of his music directorship showed the urgency in which he needed to make music and share special moments with us, his musical family. There was perfection in those moments, and I will always cherish the memories of that era."

David Hayes, music director, The Philadelphia Singers: "My first musical encounter with Wolfgang Sawallisch was at a Philadelphia Orchestra performance of Strauss' Ein Heldenleben that he led as a last-minute replacement for Riccardo Muti. He had recently been named music director-designate, and this was an unexpected visit prior to officially taking over. I remember being utterly astonished at the depth of music-making and quality of sound he coaxed from the orchestra - it was truly a revelation. Over the years, I had the privilege to work with Maestro Sawallisch many times, both as chorus master and as a cover conductor. I never lost that sense of astonishment at how he was able to make every phrase and musical gesture sound organic and musically 'right.' In the best sense of the word, I considered him a musical mentor and cherish the opportunities I had to observe him work and the conversations we had about music - both about pieces we were working on together and just about music in general. One of my favorite memories of him was a conversation about Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem for which I had prepared the chorus. During a rehearsal break, I asked Maestro Sawallisch's opinion about changing the contrabass lines to have them stay in octaves with the cellos (something not possible in Brahms' day below a certain pitch, but eminently possible now) - taking into account that Brahms had certainly envisioned that lower octave in the orchestral sonority (it's clearly there in the organ and contra-bassoon parts). He looked at me quizzically and said: 'You know, no one has ever asked me that before.' Then he said, 'But it makes sense based on the evidence in the score and especially when you think about Brahms' piano music - the left hand (bass) sonority is always richly conceived and the lower octave is so important to the texture. Let's try it!' I have never forgotten how amazed I was that someone of his musical stature and at that stage in his career was open to reconsidering a score he knew so well and look at it from a different angle. It was a very valuable lesson for a young conductor to embrace and one of countless things I learned from him that I will always carry with me."

Philadelphia Orchestra chairman Richard B. Worley: “Great orchestras are built on a foundation of great music directors, and Wolfgang Sawallisch’s tenure as music director is part of the legacy of our great Orchestra. Maestro Sawallisch left an indelible mark on our organization, and everyone who knows this Orchestra knows that the ensemble was strengthened under his leadership. We are fortunate to have known him, and we will never forget the way his smile lit up his eyes.”

Philadelphia Orchestra president and CEO Allison Vulgamore: “A loss such as this deeply affects our artistic and musical community—not just here in Philadelphia but around the world. Wolfgang Sawallisch was a man of profound artistry and unwavering yet quiet dedication. We will continue to honor his rich legacy as would befit him—by making beautiful and inspired music that touches the hearts and minds of all those who will hear it.”

Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim: “Truly Maestro Sawallisch was a once-in-a-lifetime figure in the world of music. He was the perfect combination of musicianship, craft, and integrity. The Philadelphia Orchestra was his greatest instrument and all of us who had the privilege to perform for him in those transcendent concerts will forever be in his debt.”

Here is an interview with Sawallisch from 2006 given at his home in Grassau.