Malcolm Lowe announces BSO retirement

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LENOX — Malcolm Lowe decided it was time for him "to begin a new adventure and artistic journey and listen to the voices that are beckoning me to do other things with the rest of my life."

After a return to duty at Tanglewood this summer, Lowe, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster for 35 years, is leaving the BSO. The 66-year-old, self-described "boy from the prairies of Canada" announced his retirement Friday, departing as the BSO prepares to begin its Symphony Hall season on Thursday, Sept. 19.

He'll remain based in Boston, doing some private teaching, playing chamber music, rethinking music and having more time to read philosophy and poetry, he said in a telephone interview.

Obviously, he said, he's going to miss the routine — the "habit" — of sitting at the front of the orchestra and providing leadership. But, he added, he still has the support "that one gets from your own desires and your own dreams of music. ... Luckily, as a musician I can still carry that with me."

And he'll be back at Tanglewood, though his role has yet to be defined. The Berkshires, he said, are "such a wonderful, wonderful place to be," and as a golfer, he loves to play at the Stockbridge Golf Club.

Because of a concussion, Lowe missed the entire 2018 Tanglewood season and 2018-19 Boston season.

In the announcement of his retirement, he said his 2019 return "has been one of my most satisfying accomplishments — truly a mountain conquered. I feel so blessed that I was able to meet this challenge and get back to full strength and power. Being able to perform again with all of my colleagues was a gift to me and I am so very grateful to all of them for their many kind words of support and encouragement."

The year of recovery, he said in the interview, changed his whole perspective on music.

In music like Beethoven's and Mozart's, he said, a "common thread" of meaning remains "no matter how many times we reinvent that" through performance. The enduring message "keeps us alive. I'm actually delving into that more, just personally and trying to apply a lot of that to teaching and to my life in general."

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With Lowe gone, first associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, who missed the 2019 Tanglewood season because of a hand injury, will serve as acting concertmaster when she returns, probably in late October, a BSO spokesperson said. Associate concertmaster Alexander Velinzon, who frequently served as concertmaster at Tanglewood, will fill in until then.

A search for a permanent replacement will begin immediately and auditions will be held when candidates have been selected, the BSO said.

It was under music director Seiji Ozawa in 1984 that Lowe came to Boston from the concertmaster's position at the Symphony Orchestra of Quebec. He replaced Joseph Silverstein, who had held the BSO concertmaster's chair 22 years, but left to pursue a dual career as violinist and conductor. Among the 10 concertmasters in the BSO's 138-year history, Lowe's 35-year tenure is the second longest, surpassed only by Richard Burgin's 42 years beginning in 1920.

As concertmaster, Lowe led the violin sections and served as the players' liaison with the music director (currently Andris Nelsons). He was first violinist and artistic director of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, made up of the BSO's first-chair players. In playing distinguished by elegance rather than virtuosity, he was violin soloist both within the orchestra and in concerto-style works. He taught at the Tanglewood Music Center and Boston University.

Born on a farm in Hamiota, Manitoba, Lowe began studies at age 2 and a half at home; his father was a violinist and his mother a vocalist. When he was 9, the family moved to Regina, Saskatchewan, where, in a youth symphony, he began a series of Canadian concertmaster positions culminating in 1977 in Quebec.

The recent concussion wasn't the first time an injury led Lowe to rethink the role of the violin in his life. Shortly before his BSO appointment, he hurt his hand in a yoga handstand. Then as now, the recovery was liberating.

He felt that the violin "was no longer as important to me as it was to me at one time, in a narrow way," he recalled at the time. "And yet, at the same time it was much more important in a very broad sense."

In his formal announcement, Lowe paid tribute to Nelsons and his fellow players: "From the bottom of my heart, I thank my orchestra colleagues and Andris Nelsons for their dedication and their ability to delve deeply into the music and ask the unanswerable questions — to find the voice that lifts music from the ordinary to an extraordinary living poetry."

Nelsons commented: "Malcolm has inspired generations of music lovers with his exquisite musicality and beauty of sound, alongside his unerring consistency of performance time and again at the highest levels of his art form. ... We wish him the very best as he moves into a beautiful new chapter of his life, while remaining one of the most treasured members of the BSO family."

For Lowe, the beautiful new chapter finds him "still actually exhilarated by just the fact that I've beat a lot of odds in being able to return to playing."


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