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Wolfgang Sawallisch, one of the great post-war conductors, dies at 89

(FILES) This photaken  May 21 1999 shows Wolfgang Sawallisch music director PhiladelphiOrchestrstanding steps Hanoi OperHouse. Wolfgang Sawallisch one Germany's

(FILES) This photo taken on May 21, 1999 shows Wolfgang Sawallisch, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra standing on the steps of the Hanoi Opera House. Wolfgang Sawallisch, one of Germany's greatest conductors, has died at the age of 89, the Bavarian State Opera, where he was general music director and manager for 20 years, announced on February 24, 2013. AFP PHOTO /FREDERIK BALFOURFREDERIK BALFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

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Updated: March 26, 2013 9:44AM

Bavarian conductor and pianist Wolfgang Sawallisch died Friday at his home in Grassau, Bavaria, near the Austrian border, it was announced Sunday. He was 89.

One of the great post-war conductors, Mr. Sawallisch had been in declining health for some time.

Closely identified with the music of Richard Strauss, Mendelssohn and other German composers, after long regional experience, he was named general music director of the Bavarian State Opera in his native Munich in 1971 and stayed in that position for two decades until 1992.

“The Bavarian State Opera is deeply saddened by the death of Wolfgang Sawallisch,” said the opera’s current chief Nikolaus Bachler in a statement Sunday. “For decades, he left his stamp on our house with his great personality and his inimitable art. His name, like no other, is connected with the Munich opera and even today his influence can still be felt.”

At the age of 70, Mr. Sawallisch succeeded the much-younger Riccardo Muti as only the sixth music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and remained there for 10 years, until 2003. In Philadelphia, he reshaped the orchestra, replacing and/or hiring one third of the players.

As guest conductor, he led the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam and the Berlin Philharmonic. In 2001, he and the Philadelphia Orchestra performed at Symphony Center.

As an accompanist, he had particularly close relationships with opera stars Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

In a statement posted on, Peter Alward, former president of EMI Classics, said: “The musical world has really been deprived of one of its most experienced and respected figures. His type of all-round musical ability scarcely exists today. It was a privilege to know him, and thank heavens so much of his legacy has been preserved for posterity.”

Mr. Sawallisch had recorded for EMI since 1955, with many stellar discs to his credit, including a complete Wagner “Ring” cycle, Beethoven’s nine symphonies and the first-ever uncut version of Strauss’ “Die Frau Ohne Schatten.”

He also conducted the historic 1961 performances of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” at the Bayreuth Festival, where American mezzo Grace Bumbry sang Venus, the first black performer to take a major role at the festival.

He was preceded in death by his wife of 46 years, Mechthild, in 1998. Their son, Jorg, died earlier this year.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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