At home with the maestro Wolfgang Sawallisch's health now keeps him in Germany - and off the podium for good - but his heart remains with the Philadelphia Orchestra. No encores left for orchestra's former maestro

Posted: August 27, 2006

GRASSAU, Germany — The white roses and trumpet vines are in bloom at the estate of Wolfgang Sawallisch, whose rambling house snuggles against the Bavarian Alps. The Philadelphia Orchestra's former music director is looking through a large window onto all the loveliness, seeking in it a silver lining to what is clearly a troubling phase in life.

Now at least he can be at home to watch the four seasons play out on his many acres of forest and gardens, he says, by way of explaining that he will never conduct again.

"After 57 years, I have had enough," the maestro said, citing health, in an interview here Wednesday.

His blood pressure continues to fluctuate, and does so unpredictably. "So it is not easy for me to fly for a long time and to be on the podium for a long time. It can happen without announcement that my blood pressure is too low. This instability gives me the necessity to finish my career after 57 years of concert and opera conducting."

It's a startling thing to hear out loud from a man whose life is all about music - even though as much could be surmised from a spate of cancellations last season with orchestras he holds dear.

The Sawallisch home is elaborate testimony to six decades in opera houses and orchestra halls - the portrait of Wagner by the composer's grandson, Wieland; a chamber walled with musical scores; the two-story music room, large enough to make two Steinway grands and a Bsendorfer seem like toys.

Sawallisch spends the year at home now, but he has not lost interest in the musical news of Philadelphia. He knows that the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he led for a decade, is touring in cities nearby; he had hoped to hear a concert or two, but his lack of mobility prevents it. He is touched to receive a birthday card - he turned 83 yesterday - from his former players. He asks about or refers to a dozen or more members of the orchestra by name, asking after their health, musical and otherwise.

How is the new organ in Verizon Hall? he asks. Who is the new bass clarinetist? So the orchestra has a new president? So many new ladies in the orchestra! Roberto Diaz has a lot of wonderful ideas for the future of the Curtis Institute of Music and the city of Philadelphia, he says.

A residue of civic love has somehow settled on the conductor who many thought would just be passing through. "The last 10 years, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, were really the top years of my symphonic life," he says. He asks several times to convey his good wishes to audiences in Philadelphia. "After 10 years of community, I like the people very much."

Going over the roster of musicians name by name, he says quietly to himself: "Ja, a great orchestra."

With conducting out of the question, Sawallisch is transferring some of his musical attention to the keyboard.

"Of course, I play piano for myself, if no one can hear it, and fortunately I am very isolated here. I do not practice, but play for my own joy. Technically, I should start from the first beginnings of finger training, but it is too difficult."

Later, after walking over to one of the Steinways to play a few bars of Haydn, it seems he has been lavishly modest. The playing is gorgeously rich - expressive, nuanced in tone.

"Good acoustics," he says, deflecting a compliment, adding that EMI and Deutsche Grammophon both wanted to record vocalists in his music room but cannot, because the birds populating his land are too eager to contribute.

He has put energy and money into a music school for Grassau, the Wolfgang Sawallisch Stiftung, started with an endowment from him. Children ages 5 to 18 take lessons with musicians from the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian State Orchestra, and other orchestras; are given musical instruments; and play in small ensembles. Instruction is given not only in classical, but also in folk music and jazz.

"Music can be a great help in the lives of young people," Sawallisch says. "We have a trumpet player 10 years old; he's fallen in love with his instrument and has nothing else in his head but to play the trumpet. He is a small, little boy, but he plays so good!"

Sawallisch regrets not being able to get to Munich, an hour away, or to Salzburg, even closer in the other direction, to hear concerts.

August is a busy month of visitors, with Philadelphia Orchestra double-bassist Harold Robinson stopping by while the orchestra tours Europe. Japan's NHK television network recently came to interview him. Other musicians on the way to the Salzburg Festival are calling.

Today, after six decades of concerts in Vienna, Milan, Tokyo, Philadelphia and Lincoln, Neb., the world must come to Sawallisch.

"After the death of my wife [Mechthild] in 1998, I live alone here, making music as good as I can. All the time before, it was never possible to feel what springtime could be here or fall, because I was always out of Grassau. Today, I live here as a normal man."

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin

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