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Ave Atque Vale: Symphony Hall To Lose Lowe’s Signature Sound

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Since 1984, when Seiji Ozawa invited Malcolm Lowe to become the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 10th concertmaster, his glorious, impeccable musicality has inspired audiences and fellow players. Today, the orchestra announced the end of Lowe’s 35-year tenure in one of the most important positions in the classical firmament.

The second-longest-serving concertmaster in the orchestra’s 138-year history (after Richard Burgin, whose 42-year tenure started in 1920), Lowe succeeded the esteemed Joseph Silverstein, who served from 1962 to 1984.

Click HERE for a list of concertos he played at Symphony Hall. And HERE to hear him speak with WGBH’s Brian Bell about his work with the orchestra. Lowe writes:

“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. I will cherish forever the shared moments of everyday work, moments striving in our artistic search, practicing, trying to perfect, to contribute, to give meaning to our efforts, the music, our team, and our orchestra. I am also forever grateful to our generous audiences and donors for their incredible passion and support year after year, concert after concert—their enthusiasm never wanes.”

FLE: Do you have any recollection of your audition? Burton Fine, then senior principal in the BSO strings, recently told me about how he set up the audition in which you spectacularly triumphed. He recalled that there had been absolutely no doubt that you were the winner. You excelled beyond everyone else who auditioned, and you had shown leadership qualities as well as beauty of tone and refined musicality. He was so pleased to be involved. Were you as brilliant all that?

ML: I’m always a bit nervous when I play, whether it shows or not, but overcoming that and being able to get your message across is the most important thing. One spends hours in the practice room preparing for those moments and trying to gain the ability to do that. I recall very vividly my preparations getting ready for that audition and how I felt playing it. It’s not like I would prepare for a concert or anything else. I wanted to present the most complete picture of who I was as a person, who I was a musician, and what I was as a violinist to the panel. Whether I was preparing Shostakovich or Mozart violin concertos, or excerpts, how I presented myself was my overriding thought.

I suppose that from a very young age I was entrusted with being a sort of a leader with small orchestras, and school orchestras. I was used to projecting that kind of personality — leadership, excellence — whatever you could do to lead.

Burton said that your cueing and leadership were “tops.”

I seem to have always had this ability to do that — to communicate physically. Although I am anything but a boisterous or flamboyant person in everyday life, or if you’ve just met me. I am not that way ever. But as a section leader, somehow, my complete belief in music (and not necessarily how it should be played but the commitment that everyone should convey when they’re making music) seems to take over. I have been very athletic through my life, being captain of hockey teams, baseball teams .… it’s all a part of the picture of who I am.

There is an understanding that one gradually gains about the connection between the conductor and the orchestra, and how important the concertmaster can be in supporting that relationship and being a part of it. You learn to speak both for the conductor and for the orchestra, so that it works both ways. The greatest conductors will listen to a great orchestra, or listen to an orchestra to see what they are giving to you as musicians, at the same time as they are trying to control things from the podium from their own perspective. It’s a learning process from both sides. This is one of the great aspects of great musicmaking — sharing. If you take chamber music in its most intimate forms, like a string quartet or duo, and you expand it to the orchestra side, and if you accomplish that, you’re meeting very lofty artistic goals.

I agree; there is nothing better than a string quartet. But before we get to conductors, I would like to ask how you felt when you followed Joseph Silverstein as concertmaster. He really built the section; by the time he completed his term with the BSO, maybe a third or almost half of the players in the section had been his students. Did you feel embraced by his former students or any intimidation in succeeding him?

At the time, I really did not concern myself that way. Of course, I was aware and had met Joey and had been in touch with him over the years for various things. I had studied and communicated and talked with him about bowings and other things before I joined the orchestra. Before I joined the orchestra, in fact when I moved to Boston, I sat as concertmaster when he conducted the Worcester Symphony. His violin playing and musicianship are legendary, of course. I can’t say I felt intimidated, but I knew that I needed some time to get to know everyone in the orchestra, and for them to get to know me. I was not the kind of person that would just go in and start changing things immediately. Many of his students were colleagues of mine at school, either at Curtis or I knew of them elsewhere. Similarly now, many, many of the people who are now in the orchestra studied with me either part-time or did coaching before entering the orchestra. This is a very typical thing that happens. The most strain that I felt was from the older musicians, especially some of the French colleagues who were still in the orchestra from the time when Munch was there. These older-generation violinists, some who had studied with Carl Flesch, whom my teacher in Canada studied with, made it challenging and interesting to be a young concertmaster and to be confronted with the experience, incredible expertise, and the musicianship that were present in that orchestra decades before I arrived. I remember feeling that more than a day-to-day intimidation. It was a learning thing for me; there were colleagues there who always impressed me. I respected tradition and history so very much.

I remember the first time playing with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, a contingent developed largely by Silverstein and Leinsdorf. My first experience with them was playing the Beethoven Septet. So I prepared it. It’s not a piece that I had played before. So I thought “Oh, we’ll have three or four rehearsals.” Then I got to the first rehearsal and Harold Wright and all the incredible musicians were there … we didn’t play the whole piece through even once until the dress rehearsal. They expected me to just fit in and that that was the way it was going to go. That I remember quite vividly. I quickly understood the kind of preparation that I was going to have to do in order to just fall in line. In fact, our lives are so busy with all the rehearsals and the intensity and density of the work there that you have to be so good with your time and spend it well. That was a very important early lesson that I learned from that experience with the Beethoven Septet. Another funny thing, during the rehearsal I debated whether I should play the cadenza in the last movement. I played it and they were talking all the way through it, even though I had just arrived! They were just letting me know what I was in for. That was really priceless actually.

At his first BSO rehearsal, Andris Nelson confers with Malcolm Lowe (Chris Lee photo)

Did having all of those people with tremendous experience playing alongside you help or hinder the section’s chameleonlike ability to play in different styles when different conductors wanted different sounds?

At that time, orchestras had an even more distinct personality than they do now. For the most part, during my early years with the BSO, many conductors came and accepted the BSO sound; it had deeply European traditions which was good, great even, in most cases. Sometimes there would be conductors who loved that, others not so much, but it was accepted. As time has gone on, we have had to be more chameleonlike. It is one of the biggest challenges that we have, with all of the specialty orchestras that exist and crossover genres of music and performance. I think that is one of the biggest challenges for major large orchestras is to stay relevant to the public as well as internally, to keep progressing while hanging onto the mysteries that still bring centuries-old music into the hearts of all of us.

How can the same body of musicians play corny pops arrangements one day and then deeply felt classics on the next? It’s beyond me that they can do both well, and they don’t always of course.

Well, most of the time they do. The answer is actually that they’re great musicians. Other great artists do crossover things that may not always be totally satisfying to certain people, but it still amazes you how many can do such things. I attribute it to the fact that they are great musicians who know all kinds of music. They have an innate feel for music, relative to fundamental musicmaking: rhythm and sound and intonation and structure of music, which are always those fundamentals which you cannot escape. If you have those, then you can do just about anything.

For instance, portamento is something that has really interested me. It seems to be coming back on the string quartet level, when it’s in appropriate repertoire, but to get entire sections to do artistic slides seems to be rare. I only remember one conductor, or two, who were asking for that: Dohnanyi in Brahms got some beautiful sectional portamentos, and Honeck seemed to ask for that in Mahler. What is the discussion like in your section when a conductor says, “give me a juicy slide there”?

Well, first of all, Dohnanyi never asked for any portamenti anywhere. If we did it, it was because we felt it, because we gleaned something from how he was conducting in the sound … those came about out of that play, back and forth, that I was describing earlier. The orchestra generates a lot of the artistic things that go on onstage. Levine, for example, asked specifically for portamenti. I would say that, of any of the conductors that I’ve played with, he asked most often for very specific things which crossed all tradition.

Honeck told me that he can indicate a portamento with gestures. And does.

He can. No doubt. Ormandy is a very famous example of that. He was a violinist and he had the most beautiful hands conducting that you can imagine — beautiful to watch. And, without a doubt, if you played a Rachmaninoff symphony with him, you knew exactly what to do stylistically. And it’s not just the portamenti; it’s the color of sound, it’s whether you should play four notes in one bow, or whether you should divide the bow, what part of the bow, so many things. There is so much information you can get from a conductor.

Ormandy could actually telegraph how he wanted slurs to be placed?

Oh, definitely. The rhythmic gestures of a conductor — how linear or vertical they are conducting for a phrase — define many of the bowings that we do. Whether you start something up-bow or whether you start down-bow, how fast you use the bow … the conductors like Haitink that are adept at that will always have this tremendous sound and feeling. Dohnanyi produced a great sound. Their awareness of that and their hands, compared to many contemporary conductors, their gestures seem small and would not be recognized by the audience, but they’re so communicative to the orchestra and players. Not just their hands, but also their faces. What we saw in Haitink’s eyes, the incredible things we saw in his face, or someone like Masur; you can’t miss that message.

I have been looking at all of your concertos at Tanglewood and at Symphony Hall, and by my count you’ve played 15 at Symphony Hall and 11 at Tanglewood. But it stopped when Levine came in. Why is it that he never asked you, or you never offered, to do a concerto with him?

That’s a good question. I didn’t think about it and it’s not something that’s interesting to me. I don’t have a specific answer other than to say that violist Steven Ansell and I studied the Sinfonia Concertante, the Missa Solemnis, which is like a concerto for violin, and played it with him; I don’t really have an answer. But I tell you this, Jimmy’s intent, when he came to Boston,  and he felt like Boston was one of the few places, maybe the only place he could do this, was to re-create the kind of intense musicmaking which Toscanini produced with NBC Symphony Orchestra. And I don’t know enough, about their programming to say that they didn’t play concertos with a concertmaster, but I don’t think it happened very often. His main goal was to build the orchestra into that kind of ensemble that had this extremely powerful yet sensitive ensemble that could infect this kind of spirit in the hall, playing a concert. He wanted to re-create this feeling of performance that was just unforgettable. If you go back to the NBC, and that generation, and how they played, I think you’ll understand what he was after. It’s arguable whether he accomplished it.

I maintain that the musical demands Levine made of us, whether it was in Elliott Carter or Beethoven or Bach or anything, improved the orchestra in every way, technically. One might wonder, how you can do such a thing, technically? In fact, if you want to produce more meaningful music, you have to become technically better to do that. I still feel that a lot of the work he did with us is still present in the orchestra and that’s what a great music director can do.

But I never really thought about whether I should be playing more concerti with Levine. My focus has always been leading the orchestra. Many concertmasters develop careers touring around with concertos and recitals .… I was always invited to do things like that, but I focused on becoming the best possible concertmaster and leader. I cared deeply about my section and the conductors that made us a great orchestra.

Do you have any more specific feelings on what imprint you’ve left on your section and what message you’ll have for your successor?

I hope that one of the main influences that will be left is about sound. Many people comment about my distinctive and individual tone, regardless of what violin or bow that I play, they can always tell that it’s me, which is, for me, one of the greatest compliments. At the same time, that distinctiveness is very adaptable for my section and something that I think people can key in on. I hope that that, as well as some of the work ethic and integrity that I brought to the musicmaking in the orchestra, in leading it and how we should play, those are the things that I feel strongest about. One hopes to lead with your sound from that chair for the whole orchestra, not just your violin section. I want a trombone player to be able to come to me and say “What a great sound, and what a great phrase you made there.” You want to be able to influence and have that kind of leadership quality to inspire the whole orchestra.

I can see that. And to your thoughts about a successor, it’s more important to be an orchestra leader and section leader than it is to have a brilliant career doing concertos all over the world?

I definitely feel that. Whether the orchestra will find somebody like that, I don’t know for sure. It’s possible to do a bit of both, certainly. A concertmaster has probably one of the most varied types of careers as a violinist that you can find. The demand of being able to play a concerto has to be there, the demand of being a great leader has to be there, but then the demand of being a great chamber musician has to be there; you’ve got to be able to do it all

* * *

I don’t detect any unhappiness from you about your departure. I’m sure you wished you had not had an accident and felt better in the last couple of years, but I don’t detect any resentment at all over this.

Oh, no, you shouldn’t. I’m totally exhilarated. I have to tell you I feel very lucky and blessed that I was able to recover to 100%. Head injuries and concussions are not understood well by the public, and in many cases by doctors or therapists. I can tell you the impact on your life is something you cannot understand unless you are close to it. As I mentioned earlier this morning to someone, getting back to play this summer, and to play at full power and strength, to be able to play as well as I ever have, and in some cases some of my colleagues said “you sound better than you ever did before,” that is triumphant to me. In fact, it is one of the reasons I am now able to say “yes,” this is the time.

Did you consider staying in the section and just giving up the chair?

No. I want to be able to go and play some other concerts and chamber music and teach and do other things with family. I just sacrificed all of that for the last 35 years at the BSO. At the moment, it’s not something that I would want to do. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy it, I would. In fact, when I just started to come back to play in the spring, I sat at the back of the section for several concerts at Symphony Hall. I enjoy it tremendously. To sit beside some of my colleagues whom I never get to sit with was fantastic. But my path is in a different direction now.

I understand. Are you going to write anything about these past 35 years?

Possibly. I really am interested in trying to write something with someone about concussion and brain injury so that there is more understanding of that. I’d like to give back based on my experience because it took a tremendous amount to get back. I had tremendous support from doctors and people, but the work I had to do, to do that, was really valuable. I think it’s something not only people would take heart in, if they’re injured, but it might lead to more actual methods for recovery. I’m thinking about that.

Details of Malcolm Lowe’s Career from BSO Press Release

Malcolm Lowe, equally at home as orchestral player, chamber musician, solo recitalist, and teacher, has appeared frequently since 1984 as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood. Since his first appearance with the BSO as a concert soloist, in 1985 at Tanglewood, he has been soloist with the orchestra for works of Bach, Berlioz, Brahms, Britten, Bruch, Chausson, Haydn, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Spohr, Vivaldi, and Walton. Among his major solo appearances with the BSO are Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, and Brahms’s Violin Concerto and Concerto for Violin and Cello, the latter also featuring former BSO principal cellist Jules Eskin, and Berlioz’s Reverie and Caprice for Violin and Orchestra (also featured on the BSO’s 1994 Asia tour), all under the direction of Seiji Ozawa; the William Walton Violin Concerto with guest conductor Jeffrey Tate; Benjamin Britten’s Concerto for Violin No. 1 with guest conductor James Conlon; and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola with BSO principal viola Steven Ansell, under the direction of Andris Nelsons. Over the years, audiences and critics alike developed a deep appreciation of Lowe’s solo passages in such works as Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Lowe has also returned many times to his native Canada for guest appearances as a soloist with the Toronto and Montreal symphony orchestras and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. For further details about Lowe’s solo appearances with the BSO, please visit HERE.

In his role as BSO concertmaster and first violin of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Lowe has participated in more than 25 international tours throughout Europe, the Far East, South America, and Canada, as well as several national tours, performing with the BSO and BSCP to immense popular and critical acclaim in the most prestigious music capitals and major summer music festivals throughout the country and around the world.

Over the course of his tenure with the BSO, Malcolm Lowe’s artistic leadership position within the orchestra, in his role as concertmaster, has been manifest on more than a hundred recordings. Highlights include a Mahler cycle, Henri Dutilleux’s The Shadow of Time, Strauss’s Elektra, and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, as well as albums of works by Ravel, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, and Berlioz, all under the direction of Seiji Ozawa; a Grammy award-winning recording of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé and an album of works by Charles Wuorinen, both under the direction of James Levine; a boxed set of the Brahms symphonies under the direction of Bernard Haitink; an album entitled “Bernstein: The Final Concert,” featuring the BSO performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, with Leonard Bernstein conducting; and the recent acclaimed series of recordings of Shostakovich symphonies (the first three in the series winning Grammy awards in three consecutive years) under the direction of Andris Nelsons. In addition, Malcolm Lowe’s playing has added luster to well more than a dozen recordings by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, including the 2012 Grammy nominated album, Profanes et Sacrée, featuring 20th century French chamber music.

Throughout his tenure with the BSO, Malcolm Lowe participated actively on every audition committee organized to fill empty positions in the orchestra. He also served on the search committee that resulted in Andris Nelsons’s appointment. Lowe’s concertmaster position a is named the Charles Munch Chair, endowed in perpetuity.

Lowe is a faculty member at the Tanglewood Music Center and Boston University. Prior to his Boston appointment, he was concertmaster of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra. The recipient of many awards, he was one of the top laureate winners in the 1979 Montreal International Violin Competition.

Born to musical parents—his father was a violinist and his mother a vocalist—on a farm in Hamiota Manitoba, Lowe moved with his family to Regina Saskatchewan at the age of nine. There he studied at the Regina Conservatory of Music with Howard Leyton-Brown, former concertmaster of the London Philharmonic. He later studied with Ivan Galamian at the Meadowmount School of Music and at the Curtis Institute of Music. Lowe also studied violin with Sally Thomas and Jaime Laredo and was greatly influenced by Josef Gingold, Felix Galimir, Alexander Schneider, and Jascha Brodsky.

Franz Kneisel, an illustrious predecessor

Lowe in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante HERE

Lowe delivers a prominent solo in Brahms’s First Symphony HERE

Concertmasters of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

1984-2019 Malcolm Lowe
1962-1984 Joseph Silverstein
1920-1962 Richard Burgin
1918-1920 Fredric Fradkin
1910-1918 Anton Witek
1907-1908 Carl Wendling
1904-1907; 1908-1910 Willy Hess
1903-1904 Enrique Fernández Arbós
1885-1903 Franz Kneisel
1881-1885 Bernard (or Bernhard) Listemann

The Search Process for Appointment of the Next BSO Concertmaster
Under the terms of the orchestra‘s master agreement, the Boston Symphony Orchestra will immediately begin defining the search process for the appointment of the next concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As is common practice at the BSO and in the US orchestra industry at large, the audition process will remain private and protected in order to maintain the fairness and integrity required to ensure the best possible outcome.

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  1. Well done Malcolm. Well done.

    Comment by Thurston Howell — September 13, 2019 at 5:41 am

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