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Wolfgang Sawallisch

Wolfgang Sawallisch was a German conductor and pianist, known for his refined interpretations of orchestral and opera repertoire. As a pianist, he was a revered accompanist and chamber musician, as well as an accomplished soloist. He was born in 1923 in Munich to Maria and Wilhelm Sawallisch, and had a brother named Werner who was older by five years. He started learning the piano at age five, and by the age of ten he had already decided that he wanted to be a concert pianist as an adult. Upon graduating high school in Munich in 1942, he studied piano with Wolfgang Ruoff until he was drafted into the military, where he served in France and Italy with the Wehrmacht, a branch of the Nazi armed forces. During the final stages of World War II in 1945 he was captured and held in a British POW camp. After he was released, he returned to Munich and began studying with composer Joseph Haas. In 1946 Sawallisch graduated from the Staatliche Musikhochschule in Munich, testing out after only a single semester. The following year he began his first professional appointment as répétiteur, and eventually chorus master at the Augsburg Opera Theater. He was also studying conducting with Hans Rosbaud and Igor Markevitch at the time, and performing as an accompanist with violinist Gerhard Seitz, with whom he won the Geneva International Competition in 1949. It was also around this time when he married his wife Mechthild Schmid, who was a singer. They had known each other since childhood, when Sawallisch performed as her accompanist. Sawallisch's reputation as a conductor was growing, and with that came guest conducting assignments from German orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1953. Over the next ten years, he held Music Director positions in Aachen, and then Wiesbaden, and finally in Cologne where he also taught at the Conservatory. In 1957 he became the youngest conductor to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival, opening with Tristan und Isolde. That same year he also had two debut performances in London that included a recital where he accompanied Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and he conducted the Philharmonia. Throughout the 1960s he simultaneously held principal conductor appointments at both the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and the Hamburg State Philharmonic. Additionally, he first appeared as guest conductor in Japan with the NHK Symphony Orchestra in 1964, where he would annually return to conduct for over 30 years. Again in the 1970s Sawallisch maintains simultaneous directorship positions, with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and the Bavarian State Opera. Throughout his tenure in Munich, he conducted a staggering 1200 opera performances, and also the complete Wagner Ring des Nibelungen cycle 32 times. His appearance in 1984 as guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra would prove to be important, as he eventually returned in 1993 to take over the position as Music Director, succeeding Riccardo Muti. In his first year, they toured Japan, China, and made an appearance in Vietnam. He held this position until 2003, and eventually retired from conducting due to a health condition. However, he continued his affiliation with the Philadelphia Orchestra as Conductor Laureate until his death in 2013.
© RJ Lambert & Joseph Stevenson /TiVo


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