There are no easy answers. These and a long list of even more serious issues make this perhaps the most trying time in the orchestra's history. But Sawallisch is bursting with energy and ideas, punctuating his thoughts with terse gestures, as he speaks of his plans with the Philadelphians into 2000, when the orchestra celebrates its centennial.
``I think that, speaking about recordings, the international situation indeed is a very difficult and, ja, I would like to say, negative one,'' says Sawallisch, ignoring a cocktail pianist playing Saint-Saens' The Swan in the lobby of the China World Hotel.
While Sawallisch was leading the orchestra through Asia on the tour, which ended June 2, Peter Alward, EMI's vice president for artists and repertoire, chose to speak publicly about his pessimism for a continued recording contract with the orchestra. The current contract expires in September.
Alward also said that Sawallisch, an exclusive EMI artist, might think about shopping around for a new label. Sawallisch's contract with EMI runs through 1998, no matter what orchestra he is conducting. But Alward said that if the conductor found another label, he would be released from the deal.
Said the EMI executive: ``If another company came along and wanted to make something with Sawallisch, and they were prepared to pay the rate, we would allow him to do so, because he's not so young and he should preserve his posterity.''
Sawallisch seems unfazed by Alward's strangely blunt comments, and the maestro responds in his usual gentlemanly way.
``Certainly the market is satisfied, absolutely, and I believe that Peter Alward is right indeed to say that the financial situation for his company, EMI, is, momentarily, a difficult one. But speaking for our orchestra, we need the international reputation. And in our jobs, we have to renovate every year this international reputation. You can't say, `Ja, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, the great sound . . . ' In our job you need a confirmation every concert, every tour, every day, and we need a good concert hall where we are able to make recordings as live performances.''
Sawallisch, like Riccardo Muti before him, sees a new concert hall as key to a bright future in recordings. With a new hall, the orchestra could record its concerts during already scheduled performances, saving the cost of a recording studio and reducing the amount of money the musicians receive for each recording.
The way Sawallisch figures it, if the orchestra could record during regular performances in a new hall, it could pay musicians less for each recording, but because more recordings would be possible, each musician would end up with the same amount of money by the end of the season.
Recording live performances in the Academy of Music is not feasible, says orchestra president Joseph H. Kluger. ``The recording people tell us that it just doesn't sound good enough,'' he says. ``The competition in the marketplace for compact discs is such that you not only need to have a high-quality performance, but you have to have a sonic quality that is of the highest caliber.''
Sawallisch adds that live recordings capture a certain energy that is hard to duplicate in the recording studio.
``One of the most important obligations of a record company is not to repeat for the 10th or 20th time a Beethoven symphony or a Bruckner or Mahler symphony - but to fix for the future special moments of unique performances due to soloists, due to the program, and this you only can do during a live performance.''
Sawallisch would like to see the orchestra record a series of works commissioned by, commissioned for, or dedicated to the Philadelphia Orchestra. The list is considerable, including works by Rachmaninoff, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Walter Piston, Roy Harris and William Bolcom.
``This could be a wonderful documentation.''
Will a new hall ease the orchestra's current recording conundrum?
``Absolutely! Absolutely!'' says Sawallisch emphatically.
One of the biggest challenges facing orchestra leadership these days is programming. Last season's Beethoven mania seems to have been at least partly responsible for filling seats, and management hopes Brahms will do the same next season. But what then?
``This is a provocation, ja?, this question,'' says Sawallisch with a chuckle. ``You know very well our program for the next season, with Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn. For the following season, we are looking. You are absolutely right. It is difficult. But it is important to think about this, to serve both the orchestra and the audience. Fortunately, for programming, I have a very, very long experience. Sometimes my wife is desperate, because I come home from discussion of programs and I'm very happy and I say to her, `Finally we have a new season,' and she is happy, too. And the next morning, I say, `We have to start again - there is no special point, all good music, but we must start again.' And she is desperate, and she says, `My God, now you start again to look to your library and to discuss.' It's a most difficult and demanding question every year. To find the right programs, the right soloists, especially in a place where the sponsors must be convinced to continue sponsoring the orchestra.''
Also difficult, Sawallisch admits, are budget constraints, which have affected the orchestra's freedom to hire any guest musician or conductor it wants. In May, orchestra leaders announced a series of cutbacks that included a 5 percent reduction in artistic expenses for conductors and soloists. That translates to about $140,000 less to spend on outside talent.
``Fortunately, I have absolutely nothing to do with budgets,'' says the maestro, ``but of course, certainly, I would say we invite for the next season only top, top, top, top, top, top, top [soloists and guest conductors], and they would say, `Stop a moment, dear maestro, now our budget is . . . ' I'm sure there are, worldwide, young soloists with extraordinary gifts. We don't know. Just for the season 1998-'99, I hope I can introduce three or four really extraordinarily gifted young people, and of course, they don't have international famous names, because they are at the beginning of their careers. But we must give these young people a chance to perform with a first-class orchestra in a first-class subscription series. I hope I can bring young people to Philadelphia, really - great pianists and winners of competitions.''
Sawallisch concedes that, for the concertgoer on the street, name recognition is a prime factor in selling tickets.
``That's true, this is important to find the right balance,'' he says. ``In the same series to have a David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin, or Fritz Kreisler, and in between in the same series, to have young people, it should be possible. Even for conductors. For unknown conductors, I think it is so important to find periods of at least two weeks, not only one week for an unknown conductor.
``I remember in 1966 when I came to the Philadelphia Orchestra the first time. When I started my first rehearsal, of course I was nervous - of course, to conduct such an orchestra. Even today, it is difficult for these young people to start the first rehearsal with this famous orchestra. But with two weeks, they have much more the possibility to bring in their own feelings, their own musicianship.''
As for the orchestra's ability to attract top full-time talent, Sawallisch is enthusiastic about many of the recent appointments. Retiring pillars of the orchestra have been, for the most part, replaced with players whose obvious talents have impressed their older colleagues during the last season.
``The orchestra is so marvelous,'' says Sawallisch. `` . . . On the one hand, the young people learn from colleagues the tradition and sound, and the importance of what the Philadelphia Orchestra is. And on the other hand, the older people [have] a certain . . . ''
At this point, Sawallisch searches about for the right word; not finding it, he instead punches down the air with his fist.
``You understand? To demonstrate that `I'm not so old, I can play.' This gives a very good energy for everybody, ja?
``I feel we couldn't find a better first trumpet [David Bilger], a better first double bass [Harold Robinson], a better first trombone [Nitzan Haroz]. And certainly next year, when [principal violist Joseph] de Pasquale leaves and [principal clarinetist Anthony M.] Gigliotti, I hope that the successors in both positions bring in new blood, as Bilger did for the trumpets.
``I am very happy with the three new cello players. The section we have of double basses and cellos is very great, and unique, really. I wouldn't say it if I wouldn't be convinced about this. The double bass section is great!''
Sawallisch says he's glad he is not directly involved in contract negotiations between the orchestra's musicians and the orchestra association, as he was in some of his previous posts. The current contract expires Sept. 15, and contract talks this time around, players say, promise to be particularly difficult.
``It is so wonderful that finally in my life I must not speak about money. Ja? And I always can say, `Please, it's up to him, it's up to you.' It's not my job. Finally.''