It was a happy solution for the orchestra, which has been faced with several weather-canceled or postponed concerts this season. This time, instead of yelling Kaputt!, Sawallisch prompted the orchestra to throw open the academy doors and invite the public in for free.
Since the decision came late in the day, the orchestra had little time to tell patrons. It sent out word of the event on radio stations, and informed people who were phoning in to see whether the concert had been canceled.
Said orchestra spokeswoman Mary Kinder Loiselle: "We wanted to get one of those election cars with a speaker on top to shout: Free Wagner at the Academy of Music - come on down!"
About 600 attended, including about 30 orchestra members who made it in for a rare chance to sit on the other side of the proscenium.
"I wouldn't have missed this for anything," said Michael Ludwig, associate concertmaster. "I'm absolutely blown away. He's a real treasure for this city. Did you hear all those inner voicings?"
The concert was more informal than most. Orchestra president Joseph H. Kluger came out on stage before the concert in a striped sweater and khaki pants to talk to the audience, as did Sawallisch, though he wore his usual formal concert attire.
"You are witnessing a very unusual concert," he told the audience, "even for me after all these years. This is my world premiere - opera in concert version on piano. A new experience. Let's see what will happen."
As much as Sawallisch was admired for his pianism, his good sportsmanship seemed to matter even more to listeners.
"He quite charmed me with his resolve," said orchestra subscriber Hugh Sutherland. "I really appreciate Sawallisch banging away like that on the spur of the movement."
Philadelphia Orchestra violist Stephen Werczynski agreed. "He was absolutely amazing. Earlier this week we heard about (laureate conductor Riccardo) Muti not coming back to conduct, and this is just so moving to see how Sawallisch cares about us."
Said listener Susan Horsey: "It's obvious he's very much attached to his new home."
Moments before the concert it looked as though only a few members of the chorus, the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, were going to make it in. Sawallisch seemed horrified. "Oh no, not a new situation again," he said. But about 70 choristers showed up - about 75 percent of the full group - and the maestro breathed a sigh of relief.
Asked if wintry weather caused similar moments of angst in his home town of Munich, Sawallisch said: "This would never, never happen back in Germany."