"I am a Philadelphian," Wolfgang Sawallisch announced in the fall of 1993, just after he became music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra.
The whimsical allusion to John F. Kennedy's famous statement in Berlin was telling. For not only was Sawallisch declaring that he hoped to offer more than just the "jet-in, jet-out" baton service that had become the norm for international maestros, he was also suggesting his willingness to take with utmost seriousness the challenge of leading an American orchestra.
He could hardly have imagined how difficult this would prove to be. Nor could he know how thoroughly his decade at the Orchestra's helm would change not only him but also us. Many Americans tend to view the European influence on American musical life as some strange foreign invasion. Sawallisch has managed to show us the bond that always existed between American music making and the essential orchestral repertoire.
Despite initial uneasiness about a grandfatherly 70-year-old maestro, especially after the dynamic tenure of Riccardo Muti, Sawallisch won hearts with surprising ease, with an alternately serious and bemused public style. His music, speaking for itself, completed the process.
"All of the ideas I have about the great European music are immediately answered by The Philadelphia Orchestra," Sawallisch said in a radio interview. Before long, critics and audiences began to hear something new, a sort of fresh take on the Old World profundity that had always been a part of this Orchestra's tradition.
"The Orchestra is changing in broad and subtle ways," Daniel Webster wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer of Sawallisch's initial Carnegie Hall concert as music director in 1993. Of the same concert, Bernard Holland noted in The New York Times that Sawallisch created "leisure without languor, a reflective calm that nevertheless quivers with energy. His evident aim is not to do away with the 'Philadelphia sound' but to make listeners forget they are hearing it."
It was a huge risk Sawallisch was taking at age 70, in moving his artistic home base to the New World and taking on a job that few European conductors fully understand. He admitted that he knew little about American ways or American music. But he took his new job to heart, moving into an apartment on Rittenhouse Square and spending several weeks a year in Philadelphia. When the Sawallisches were in town they could be seen about the Square on a weekend morning‹looking pretty much like any other well-heeled Center City couple out for a stroll.
Philadelphia was a surprisingly invigorating change for the maestro. "I am very, very happy to come back now to my symphonic repertoire," he said. He played chamber programs with Orchestra members, performed lieder recitals with Thomas Hampson and others, and led Family Concerts with fatherly animation. He conducted a potent performance of Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" from the keyboard. He programmed remote scores like Frank Martin's The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke and grew angry when audience members walked out. (Later, though, he recalled with amusement how mezzo-soprano Marjana Lipovsek stopped the performance to invite anyone else who wanted to leave to do so.)
It was Sawallisch the répétiteur pianist who sat in for a snowbound Orchestra during the winter storm of 1995, explaining the stories of Die Walküre and Tannhäuser as he played for the soloists. Wagner's dense textures were barely cheated here; at times one almost imagined that an orchestra was indeed onstage.
In his repertoire Sawallisch has tended to play to his strengths, with music of Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn‹and most of all, Strauss. It is barely an exaggeration to say that, through his performances of the tone poems and many other works, including Ariadne auf Naxos in concert, the musical community came to hear Strauss's music in a different way.
"The effect was not of nostalgia, but its reverse," wrote Edward Rothstein in The New York Times of the 1995 Ariadne performance in Carnegie Hall. "A lost world was not longed for; instead, the feeling of loss was deliciously savored. Mr. Sawallisch unveiled the coziness of Strauss." It was a vindication of sorts when scholars began to voice, during the 1999 Strauss commemorations, the view that Strauss might indeed have been the most important composer of the 20th century.
After the 1998 death of his wife, Mechthild, Sawallisch led searing performances of Strauss's Metamorphosen and Death and Transfiguration. The personal significance for the conductor of the former work's memories of postwar Germany in ruins, and of the latter's grappling with death, was not lost on the audience members, many of whom could not hold back tears of their own.
That he opted to feature Robert Schumann's music in his final season could be seen as telling. This is some of the most turbulent music imaginable, imbued with a sort of upheaval that is hardly unfamiliar to our bewildering age.
But Sawallisch has worked outside his strengths, too. Of American music Sawallisch proved an eager study. He championed composers like Hanson and Barber with interpretations that revealed a real affection for the music. He took American music on the Orchestra's tours, as if to announce to the world that he was now more than just that Bavarian Opera guy.
Contemporary music has hardly been foreign to Sawallisch. In Philadelphia he led premieres of works by Druckman, Rands, Rihm, Blacher, Rochberg, and many others‹including a symphony by the Holocaust victim Viktor Ullmann. Guest conductors during his tenure led works by Rouse, Danielpour, Daugherty, Hannibal, Kancheli, Liebermann, MacMillan, and Reich.
Still, it was through the Centennial Commissions that Sawallisch made his most indelible mark on new music. The wide-ranging series of commissions for the Orchestra's 100th anniversary added several fine works to the repertoire, including Kernis's Color Wheel, Rautavaara's Eighth Symphony, and Sierra's Concierto para orquestra.
One of the gambles of these commissions paid off big. Jennifer Higdon, a Curtis Institute faculty member, was known to Sawallisch and the Orchestra's commission selection committee only through a single orchestral piece. But the impression it made was strong enough that the Orchestra was willing to take a chance on the composer. The result, a bold Concerto for Orchestra, formed‹together with Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, a work dear to the conductor's heart‹the final program of the 2001-02 season.
It was one of the most successful pieces commissioned by the Orchestra in recent years, a work of dazzling complexity and visceral fun. Verizon Hall was suddenly flooded with cascades of the most intricate orchestral sound imaginable.
The artistic and public success of the Higdon piece was an indication, perhaps, of how far Sawallisch and the Orchestra had grown together in the collaborative process that produces good new music. Further, it seemed oddly "of a piece" with Ein Heldenleben, as if to suggest that the final distinctions between European tradition and contemporary America were indeed becoming blurred beyond all recognition.
Paul Horsley, music critic for The Kansas City Star, was The Philadelphia Orchestra's program annotator and staff musicologist from 1992 to 2000.