24 February 2013
Conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, 89, Towering Interpreter of the Music of Richard Strauss, Has Died
Munich, Germany, August 26, 1923 — Grassau, Germany, February 22, 2013
One of the twentieth century's supreme interpreters of the music of Richard Strauss, Sawallisch studied as a pianist at Munich's Wittelsbacher-Gymnasium and Hochschule für Musik. His career was interrupted by service in the German Army during World War II, during which he was captured and held in both British and American POW camps. After the war, Sawallisch started his professional career as a répétiteur in Augsburg, Bavaria, where he also began conducting. He was later general music director in Aachen (1953–58), Wiesbaden (1958–60) and Cologne (1960–63). Sawallisch was recognized as one of Europe's leading young maestros in 1953, when he was invited to appear with the Berlin Philharmonic; in 1957, he became the youngest conductor ever to lead the orchestra at Bayreuth when he made his debut there, leading Tristan und Isolde. Sawallisch's successes in Berlin and Bayreuth led to invitations to appear at the Vienna State Opera and at the Metropolitan Opera, but he refused both offers, claiming that he lacked sufficient experience — and alienating the power-brokers who made the invitations, Herbert von Karajan and Rudolf Bing. In the 1960s, Sawallisch headed the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (1960–70), the Hamburg Philharmonic (1961–73) and Geneva's Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.
In 1971, Sawallisch was named general music director of the Bavarian State Opera, a position he held, with various changes in title and responsibility, until 1992. While in Munich, Sawallisch programmed complete cycles of all the operas of Wagner (1982–83) and Richard Strauss (1988–89) and received consistent praise for the excellence of his work, especially in the German repertoire. He was a favorite conductor of many of Europe's greatest stars; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who recorded Capriccio with Sawallisch in 1957, called singing with him, "a wonderful sensation. It's as if you're in private." Sawallish was also a brilliant collaborative pianist whose partners in recital included Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey, Thomas Hampson and Margaret Price. During his years in Munich, Sawallisch's reputation in North America was bolstered by his recordings; he made literally hundreds, with his set of Schumann symphonies with the Dresden Staatskappelle and his 1962 Bayreuth Lohengrin considered to be among his classic performances. The last decade of Sawallisch's tenure in Munich was marred by conflict with intendant and stage director August Everding, who had been named chief of all Munich theaters in 1980 and who regarded Sawallisch as a force for musical and theatrical conservatism.
Sawallisch left Munich to take up the position of music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he led from 1993 to 2003. By all accounts — and to judge from the glorious performances that Sawallisch gave with the orchestra in Philadelphia, New York and on tour — it was one of the happiest associations of Sawallisch's career. Then in his seventies, Sawallisch seemed to enjoy a new freedom with the Philadelphians, delivering music-making that was luminous, yet scrupulously well-considered. He also won a new reputation for innovation during his years in Philadelphia. In 1997, he led the Philadelphians in the first live internet concert "cybercast" by a major U.S. orchestra. In 1999–2000, his programming for the orchestra's centennial season was made up exclusively of music written since the ensemble's creation, in 1900. When he retired, Sawallisch was named the Philadelphia Orchestra's conductor laureate. Two days after his death, as a special tribute to Sawallisch, the orchestra performed Wagner's Siegfried Idyll to open its Sunday-afternoon concert in Philadelphia.
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