Band on the Run

New players. New hall. New problems. Old audience. And as the Philadelphia Orchestra reaches for solutions, will it lose all that’s made it great?

Other musicians point out that because of Sawallisch’s idiosyncratic work ethic, issues of the orchestra’s image, role and "importance" have little bearing on his musical vision — and that the number of audience members who may or may not understand what he does musically is irrelevant. This is because Sawallisch’s musical vision, unlike that of virtually all other conductors, has never involved a dialectic with his listeners. In fact, Sawallisch has gone more than 30 years without once reading a single written profile or review of himself or his work. Working in a vacuum, he is the surest of interpreters. (When a February ice storm stranded most of his instrumentalists and singers for a performance of Wagner’s Tannhauser, Sawallisch threw open the Academy’s doors to anyone who wanted to walk in, sat himself at the piano, then played the entire orchestral arrangement while conducting the players and singers who did show up — a staggering feat.)

Though Sawallisch keeps his own musical counsel, he is not indifferent to listeners. He is charming, more than willing (unlike Muti) to attend fund-raising events and to hold concerts in which he explains and historicizes the music for his audience in between movements. He may be a rather formal man, incapable of oozing the Mediterranean passion of his predecessor (who, by the way, was once dubbed one of the two "M&M boys" — with Zubin Mehta — by record executives hard pressed to explain why the duo’s dashing good looks never helped sell records). But Sawallisch is never effete or distant. It’s worth remembering, in any case, that people worried about Arturo Toscanini’s age and resolve when he took the reigns of the NBC Symphony at the age of 70. He made legends for the next 17 years.