The Overture

How the Philadelphia Orchestra wooed and won its new music director.

WOLFGANG SAWALLISCH HAD JUST SAID YES. IT happened in Munich over lunch at a restaurant above an open-air market a few blocks from the Vier Jahreszeiten Hotel. Joseph H. Kluger, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s executive director, and John Gilray Christy, the chairman of the search committee, had arrived for the second time in two months, hoping to pry an answer from Sawallisch as they sat down with him and his wife, Mechthild. Finally Sawallisch agreed: He would take the job of music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Wonderful! Sawallisch immediately ordered champagne, toasts were made, and after the table was cleared and they parted company in front of the restaurant, Kluger and Christy practically skipped back to their hotel, giddy that their months-log search had netted a front-rank international conductor.

But later that afternoon, as Kluger and Christy drove their rented BMW along the back roads of Bavaria, through little fairy-tale towns, following a route that Sawallisch had mapped out for them, Christy had a jarring thought. They were headed to Salzburg, Austria, the setting of Europe’s most important summer music festival. Why, just the day before, ceremonies there had been kicked off by…

By Kurt Waldheim. Waldheim, the Austrian president who, for the last few years, has been fending off accusations that he ay have been involved in war crimes when he was a junior officer in the German army during World War II.

“You know, we’ve got one big loose end here,” Christy said. Specifically: What was Wolfgang Sawallisch doing in 1943? Distasteful as it was, it was a question that has haunted other artists, people like former Berlin Philharmonic conductor Herbert von Karajan, who had been a Nazi party member. Surely it would be asked back in Philadelphia sooner or later, where it could lead to a public relations problem of major proportions unless it were answered readily and — unlike in Waldheim’s case — forthrightly.

The two men then decided that, since Christy had been a State Department foreign service officer in India in the early 1960s, he would put in a phone call to some people he knew at State when they got back to Philadelphia.

ON THE SURFACE THE GRAND-fatherly Sawallisch may seem like an odd choice to succeed the intense, passionate Riccardo Muti. Sawallisch is 67 and has spent his entire adult life in Bavaria. He’s hardly a household name. (Who? Savalas? Telly Savalas?) And yet in classical music circles he makes almost everyone’s top ten list of world’s best conductors. He has performed in Rome, Milan and Tokyo … and in Philadelphia, as a guest conductor ever since 1966. Over the course of 11 weeklong stints in 24 years, the Orchestra’s musicians have come to admire him. For some, adore would not be too strong a word. In fact, in those first weeks following Muti’s announcement last March, many musicians were fearful that they wouldn’t get him and that the Orchestra’s board had already wrapped things up with Montreal Symphony conductor Charles Dutoit, the early favorite in the search.