A legacy of music and leadership

Posted: March 01, 2013

By Joseph Neubauer

Nearly 20 years ago, I traveled to Germany to meet with Wolfgang Sawallisch to discuss our desire to engage him as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. We sat in his garden surrounded by evergreens and mountains stretching off into the distance.

At the time, the orchestra was facing a number of challenges.

Concert attendance was falling. Recording contracts and broadcasting opportunities were evaporating. Arts programs had been eliminated in schools, and our audiences were growing older and older. We had just purchased land at Broad and Spruce to build a new music hall, but beyond that the project was stalled.

Frankly, we were a little worried about Sawallisch's reaction to coming to Philadelphia.

In Europe, concert halls are built and maintained by governments, not private donors. We wondered how well he would embrace the role that the maestro plays in America of motivating benefactors to get behind an enormous civic project.

Sawallisch, who died last week, listened respectfully and then spoke about the critical building blocks of success: exceptional musicians, rehearsed to technical perfection, striving for transcendent performances of the best repertoire.

He said every other goal becomes attainable only through great music. Without it, nothing else is possible. I am not a musician, but I understand the language of leadership. Sawallisch's words were music to my ears.

During his decade of leading the orchestra, Sawallisch created a legacy of stewardship that left an indelible imprint. More importantly, he strengthened the orchestra musically so it was able to withstand the challenges stemming from the Great Recession.

Sawallisch taught audiences nuance and depth in music. He also led us to appreciate a much broader repertoire, such as with his bold decision to program the orchestra's centennial season exclusively with music of the last 100 years.

While there was some grumbling when that season was announced, audiences were ultimately thrilled to be introduced to some of the most emotionally stirring music of our time. Benjamin Brittain's War Requiem still stands out for me. Was there ever a more anguished expression of the human cost of war?

By 2000, Philadelphia no longer had doubts about the need for a new performing arts center. Thanks to the generosity of so many, the Kimmel Center was funded and built.

We wanted a great and glorious space. We wanted versatility. But most of all, we wanted to be able to hear the orchestra. Verizon Hall was designed to be one vast instrument, meant to be tuned according to the needs of the performance.

Only a maestro with Sawallisch's uncompromising standards and unwavering persistence could have led us to that destination. The orchestra at the Kimmel Center helped put Philadelphia on the map once again.

Throughout his career, Sawallisch rejected offers to conduct at the Met and in Vienna. But it was our great fortune that he accepted the Philadelphia Orchestra. His wife said it was the best decision he ever made. It certainly was the best decision we ever made.

Sawallisch's legacy will endure for generations. He secured his place among the preeminent conductors who have made the Philadelphia Orchestra among the best in the world.

Danke schön und bravo!

Joseph Neubauer, chairman of Aramark, was chairman of the Philadelphia Orchestra Board of Directors from 1991 to 1995.

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