Ronald Knudsen, 83; BSO violinist mentored music lovers
Performing in the Boston Symphony Orchestra violin section for nearly a half century, Ronald Knudsen knew he had a defined role. “As an orchestra player, I’m required to play a lot like everybody else,” he explained in a 1994 Globe interview. “In the string section of the BSO, there are 37 or 38 violins. One of the big jobs is to not stick out.’’
Musicians, however, bring a lifetime of experience to each performance, each passage, each note, and Mr. Knudsen was not just a BSO-caliber violinist. He conducted throughout New England and Japan, notably as music director of the Newton-based New Philharmonia Orchestra and as a guest conductor with the Boston Pops.
He also repaired stringed instruments, personally did much of the renovations on his Victorian house in Newton, and was unafraid to get grease under the fingernails of his valued musician’s hands as he tinkered endlessly with his 1963 Mercedes-Benz. How, then, to retain individuality when orchestras count on devotion to a unified sound?
“This is a crusade for any instrumentalist or conductor,” he said in the 1994 interview. “The composer has set down on paper the basis of what he wants to be heard. Then, there’s style. Even in my lifetime of music, styles of performance have changed. My skills have improved year after year. It’s an endless pursuit of perfection.”
Mr. Knudsen, who retired in 2013 after 48 years with the BSO when his hands no longer were precise enough to meet his standards, died of complications from kidney ailments and congestive heart failure March 29 in his home in Newton’s Auburndale section. He was 83.
Since the New Philharmonia’s inception in 1995, Mr. Knudsen led the 75-member orchestra, which is made up of nonprofessional musicians from the region. Before that, he had been music director of the Brockton and Newton symphonies.
“While we will miss him greatly, we have had the privilege of decades of his musical guidance, humor, and friendship,” the New Philharmonia said on its website. “He created a space for our group of amateur musicians to climb great symphonic heights and challenged us as individuals to grow our musicianship.”
Adrienne Hartzell Knudsen, Mr. Knudsen’s wife and the New Philharmonia’s executive director, said that “working with nonprofessional players to help them reach their highest standards was really important to him. It complemented what he did at the BSO.”
Reviewing the New Philharmonia in 1998, Globe critic Michael Manning wrote that Mr. Knudsen’s “mission, incorporated in this orchestra, is to bring great music to the suburbs, and to make it not only for the people but of the people and by the people.”
The younger of two siblings, Mr. Knudsen was born in Beatrice, Neb., and grew up mostly in Minnesota, first in Minneapolis, then in two smaller towns in the western part of the state. Though neither were professional musicians, his father played piano and sang, and his mother played the harp. Mr. Knudsen’s father was a photographer and “Ron used to go out on shoots with him in high school and help him out with the equipment,” his wife said.
As a first-grader, Mr. Knudsen went with his class to hear the orchestra in Minneapolis. “The music,” he recalled in 1994, “seemed very natural to me.” At around that time he began studying violin. During his teenage years, he traveled hours to Minneapolis to study at what is now the MacPhail Center for Music.
From there he went to Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he studied with William Kroll. Mr. Knudsen also had a fellowship at what was then the Berkshire Music Center, where he was concertmaster and a soloist. He performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra before joining the BSO in 1965.
“I auditioned four times,” he recalled in a 2013 video interview, posted on YouTube, which was conducted as he prepared to retire. He consistently was runner-up at the auditions, but Alfred Krips, then the BSO’s assistant concertmaster, “was always there encouraging me and saying, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t give up.’ ”
As a side career, Mr. Knudsen began repairing and reinvigorating stringed instruments, dating to before he started playing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Calling himself “a born do-it-yourselfer” in a 2002 Globe interview, he said he “started repairing to keep my instrument in good order, and to up my handiwork, because I was always playing around with tools as a kid. The repair work evolved as I felt good about helping fellow musicians keep their instruments playable and comfortable.”
His wife said that “he wanted every instrument to sound the best that it could,” and that the need for a proper workshop was part of what brought the couple to purchase a run-down Victorian in Newton. “He had a big passion for beautiful wood, which is really what attracted us to this house.”
In the Victorian, “every day, there’s a new project,” he said in 2002, roughly a decade after buying the house. “I put in the subfloor, the plumbing, and wiring, pulled out the ash window frames, and recut them into bigger windows.”
His marriage to Kay Knudsen of Newton, a violinist who played with the Boston Pops, ended in divorce. They had two children, Mayumi Knudsen of Ridgewood, N.J., and Sato Knudsen of Newton Highlands, a cellist with the BSO and Hawthorne String Quartet.
In 2011, Mr. Knudsen told the Globe that it fulfilled “a lifelong dream” when he conducted his son in a New Philharmonia performance of the Brahms Double Concerto for violin and cello.
Mr. Knudsen met Adrienne Hartzell, a cellist, when both performed with a chamber music ensemble. A couple since 1975, they married in 1988.
Besides his wife, children, and former wife, Mr. Knudsen leaves his sister, Priscilla Knudsen Wheeler of Omaha, and four grandchildren.
Family and friends will gather to celebrate Mr. Knudsen’s life and work at 3:30 p.m. May 31 in First Baptist Church in Newton Center.
Along with his BSO and New Philharmonia duties, Mr. Knudsen was the original violinist for Collage New Music in Boston, and he helped form the Curtisville Consortium, an ensemble that performs in Lenox. He also had soloed with the Boston Pops and with orchestras in Brockton, Newton, Wellesley, and Worcester. When he became ill, “he had just finished conducting Brahms’ Second,” his wife said.
“Music was his life,” she said, adding with a laugh, “despite the fact that he worked on cars.”