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BSO concertmaster Malcolm Lowe retires after 35 years

Boston Symphony Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe. Stu Rosner

Malcolm Lowe, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, has announced that he will be retiring from his position, ending his decades-long tenure with the orchestra.

Lowe, the 10th person to hold the position in BSO history, has occupied the first chair since 1984, when he was appointed during the music directorship of Seiji Ozawa. Among BSO concertmasters, only Richard Burgin served for a longer period. Lowe’s retirement will take effect just prior to the opening concert of the 2019-20 BSO season on Sept. 19.

“Everyone has these internal voices they hear once in a while,” Lowe told the Globe, discussing his decision. “This felt like a really great moment for me to step out of the orchestra.”

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Over his 35 years with the orchestra, the Manitoba-born musician performed countless staple violin solos of the orchestral repertoire, appeared on more than 100 recordings, and participated in more than 25 international tours across Canada, Europe, Asia, and South America. Lowe also served as first violin and artistic director of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, the elite chamber ensemble made up of the BSO’s principal musicians.

The role of BSO concertmaster extends far beyond performance. In accordance with the terms of his contract, Lowe was present for the final round of every BSO audition during his tenure. He also served on the search committee that resulted in Andris Nelsons’s 2013 hiring as music director.

“Malcolm Lowe’s 35-year career as Boston Symphony Orchestra concertmaster represents an extraordinary dedication and commitment to excellence at the highest level of music-making,” Nelsons said in a statement. “We are deeply indebted and grateful to Malcolm for sharing his countless musical gifts with us these many years.”

Looking back on his own proudest achievements with the orchestra, Lowe fondly recalled little moments, like “the look on Bernard Haitink’s face when we played a Brahms symphony.” As the retiring concertmaster remembers it, “there were certain moments where he was obviously just carried into this zone.”

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Lowe also spoke of the joy of hearing colleagues in the BSO horn section playing a Schumann four-horn concerto. “How they worked together, the language you could hear, the thought that went into it, the inspiration,” he said. “Everything about it was so enjoyable.”

And when the late, great conductor Kurt Mazur once tackled “Missa Solemnis,” one of Beethoven’s most daunting works, it was a performance Lowe will never forget. “To realize how he was basically brought to his knees,” he said, “that was a really powerful message about music, about human humbleness before an entity you could even call God, if you’d like.”

Lowe was notably absent from the Symphony Hall stage for over a year after he sustained a concussion while avoiding a cyclist in early 2018. This past spring, he began to play at the back of the second violin section to reacclimate, and his full return from medical leave came at the beginning of this summer’s Tanglewood season.

“It felt quite triumphant, what I did,” Lowe told the Globe, discussing his recovery. “It was a real shock to me what concussion is, really, and how it changes your life in a split second.”

He’s now back “at 100 percent,” Lowe said, but healing from the concussion, as well as broken bones in his face, took time and effort. And at first, practicing proved painful.

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As Lowe’s strength returned, though, he came to realize that few events could end his time with the BSO on as high a note as his own recovery.

“After I got back to that performance level, I thought to myself that [the BSO] would either be a really long-term thing again, or I could stop and feel good about it,” Lowe recalled.

Lowe isn’t certain what the future holds — his son, a jazz musician, has expressed interest in working together, and he’s intrigued by teaching — but he feels satisfied to end his longstanding relationship with the orchestra at this point, as well as to enjoy the greater artistic freedoms that will accompany his retirement.

“Because of where I grew up and how I learned about music, on a small farm in Manitoba, I’ve never been dependent on the orchestra for my own self-worth,” Lowe explained. “It’s never been that. I’ve been totally committed to my job, but it’s never been the kind of thing where I felt I couldn’t live without doing that. My relationship with music is always mine.”

The final piece he played with the orchestra was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 at the summer’s farewell concert, conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero.

The orchestra will immediately begin to plan the process of auditioning and appointing a new concertmaster.


Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. Isaac Feldberg can be reached at isaac.feldberg@globe.com, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.

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