Wolfgang Sawallisch was in poor health for so long that his recent death was like that moment when, after watching a flame diminish over a long period, it finally flickers to darkness. Until it totally disappears, you believe, if just a little bit, that through some miracle it might one day reverse its decline and burn bright again.
In its own way, the Sawallisch flame endures.
The conductor, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1993 to 2003, gave his last concert in Philadelphia in 2005. But for everything that has happened since then, it might as well have been half a century ago. The orchestra is on its third artistic leader since the Sawallisch era ended, and a fifth of the ensemble is new since his departure. It is no longer his Philadelphia Orchestra.
Perhaps surprisingly, what remains of Sawallisch in the orchestra today has less to do with the internal musical dynamics of the ensemble than with the way he prodded the organization to relate more to the outside world. People like to reduce public figures to comfortable stock characters, and the one the public and some critics saw in a conservative dresser devoid of podium histrionics was that of a solid grandfather type interested only in his scores.
Musically, the image was a lie. Anyone who heard his Brahms Symphony No. 1 at Tanglewood in 1999 knows that if that exact performance had been achieved by a 25-year-old with a mop of blonde hair, it would have been perceived as the arrival of a firebrand. The same was true regularly in the Academy of Music, and even more often in Verizon Hall after Sawallisch eased the orchestra's more-treacherous-than-anyone-knew transition from its home of 101 years.
A wise caretaker he was. But his innovations not only live on, the orchestra's current stewards embrace them as salvation.
Video screens during concerts? That began under Sawallisch, in the Academy of Music.
Online concerts? Sawallisch. Post-concert parties, a club for younger listeners, free neighborhood concerts? Again, Sawallisch. Sawallisch the progressive.
Many of these initiatives, to be sure, were embraced by "W.S." - as he was referred to internally - after being generated by the orchestra's administration. But one that came straight from him, says the orchestra's president from that period, Joseph H. Kluger, was the way the orchestra should celebrate its centenary.
"Dedicating the last season of the century to works premiered in the 20th century - that was his idea," said Kluger. "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." One such commission was Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra, now a staple.
Were he music director today, Sawallisch would no doubt delight in the new toys of the time. If the idea of commissioning an opera to Twitter texts had been proposed, he likely would have loved it - worrying only about whether the right kinds of opera voices could be found.
Sawallisch patched a lot of obvious holes in the repertoire, and he stretched the ensemble to do earlier music and newer scores. Imagine: He conducted the orchestra's first complete performance of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, the first Mozart Symphony No. 1, Haydn's The Seasons, Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 1, Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 - introducing an average of five works a season.
Three dozen world and U.S. premieres were given by him and guest conductors in his decade.
The current leadership is working on getting the orchestra out of Verizon Hall more often, betting that residencies in China can bring profit and glory. Sawallisch led 13 orchestra tours in a decade, bringing the orchestra for the first time to Vietnam; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Taipei, Taiwan; Leipzig, Germany; Venice; and Montreaux, Switzerland, as well as West Palm Beach and Iowa City.
Its presence was magnified many times over in several cities, transmitting sound and video onto big screens in town squares.
"Viva Filadelfia!" shouted someone in the plaza outside the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City in 1998 after the orchestra sounded the final notes of Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber.
Sawallisch also sometimes introduced the orchestra to its own city, inaugurating in 2000 a series of neighborhood concerts that continue to be an important connector to classical music. He had a presence at the Mann Center, a requisite commitment for any music director wishing his claim as a Philadelphian to be taken as anything but hollow.
Sawallisch not only burnished his credentials as a Philadelphian at the Mann but also won the battered hearts of listeners across the land when he led the orchestra in a benefit concert there five days after the 9/11 attacks. Televised to several cities, it was "a great gift to the nation," in the words of one listener.
The concert wasn't Sawallisch's idea, said Kluger, but when it was proposed to the conductor, stuck in Germany amid post-9/11 airport chaos, "he instantly said, 'We must do this,' and was then scrambling around to find people he knew at Lufthansa to get a flight over." A few days after the Mann concert Sawallisch spread the orchestra's salve still farther, taking the group on a U.S. tour at a moment of uncertain peril.
Musically, it's doubtful the orchestra can ever again be what it was under Sawallisch. On another U.S. tour in 1994 - with Strauss, Brahms and Schumann - the authority, absolute rhythmic unanimity, and power that came with such a homogeneous sense of refinement struck me as the most subtle and highly evolved sounds a civilization could ever achieve. He did it with a flick of the wrist, or by shooting dirty looks and gestures imploring more love.
Musicians who played under him now profess adoration for the man. But when he was music director, they feared him. Patriarchal systems of authority are pretty much discredited today. In the life of a great orchestra, however, that is what it takes. Sawallisch was a dictator, but perhaps the only kind whose reign you wish could have lasted forever.