Bowing out on a legendary violin - Albuquerque Journal

Bowing out on a legendary violin

Krysztof Zimowski holds the 1712 “Le Brun” Stradivarius violin. He will play the famous instrument in his final concert with the New Mexico Philharmonic on March 26 before he retires at the end of the month. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Faded posters documenting a life in music wallpaper the practice room in Krzysztof Zimowski’s Albuquerque home.

There’s his graduation recital in Wroclaw, Poland; and an autographed photograph of the great American violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The sheet music for the John Williams’ score to “Schindler’s List” rests on his music stand in preparation for a New Mexico Philharmonic concert. And the sensuous curves of the 1712 “Le Brun” Stradivarius violin lie on a loveseat, awaiting his fingertips.

The New Mexico Philharmonic concertmaster will retire at the end of this month. The Strad is on loan from an anonymous colleague for his final concert on March 26.

“That’s the greatest violin ever,” he said. “It belonged to Paganini.”

The Italian musician Niccoló Paganini was the most celebrated violinist of his time.

“The secret is in the varnish,” Zimowski continued, rhapsodizing about the instrument. “Every single register responds amazingly.”

Zimowski will perform the Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski’s landmark “Violin Concerto No. 2” with the orchestra, followed by Tchaikovsky’s five-movement “Symphony No. 3,” sometimes known as his “Polish Symphony.”

The 1712 ‘Le Brun’ Stradivarius violin rests in its case. The violin was once owned by celebrated violinist Niccolo Paganini and is being loaned by an anonymous colleague to Krysztof Zimowski for his final concert with the New Mexico Philharmonic. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The violinist’s journey from Eastern Europe to the Land of Enchantment was circuitous and sometimes fraught.

Zimowski’s father was a survivor of Austria’s notorious Mauthausen concentration camp. His mother was still in high school when the war broke out, an event that shattered her dreams of a career. He credits her with nudging him toward music.

Zimowski picked up his older sister’s violin at age 5½. Soon, his teachers began noticing his talent.

“We had one violin; I just picked it up,” Zimowski said. “Mom said I was listening to the radio.

“The practicing part is very, very hard,” he continued. “I was no prodigy. My mother had a really good ear and she taught me intonation.”

Still, music was inside him, he said, his hand to his chest.

Zimowski was appointed concertmaster of the State Opera Orchestra in Wroclaw while still a student at the Wroclaw Academy of Music.

He continued to be a soloist in high demand throughout Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany.

But, as political strife churned throughout Poland during the 1980s, he grew restless. It was the time of Solidarity, the anti-bureaucratic social movement using civil resistance to advance the cause of workers’ rights under the Communist regime. Zimowski was a Solidarity member.

Krysztof Zimowski practices on the 1712 “Le Brun” Stradivarius violin. The New Mexico Philharmonic concertmaster will retire at the end of March. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

He had attended music camps in both Germany and London; he decided to stay in London. Returning to Poland because he missed his wife Urszula, a former opera singer, he heard about orchestra tryouts in Warsaw. He nailed an audition for the Mexico City Philharmonic out of hundreds of candidates.

“I was looking for a job, any job,” he said. “I didn’t see the future for me. Something was approaching us in the air.”

He spent six years in Mexico, leaving Poland just three months before the government declared martial law.

“Kids who stay in their own nests are not going to succeed much,” he added.

A Mexico City colleague originally from Boston advised Zimowski to head north to New Mexico to join his nascent string quartet. There, he learned about auditions with what was then the New Mexico Symphony.

“I got temporary chair number eight,” he said.

Zimowski climbed the musical staff into the position of concertmaster in 1999. He played with the Phoenix Symphony, the Santa Fe Opera, the Santa Fe Symphony and Santa Fe Pro Musica. Today, he also serves as concertmaster for Opera Southwest.

In 2015, he won the Knight’s Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. He became an American citizen in 2011.

“He’s a very important artist in our orchestra,” Philharmonic conductor Roberto Minczuk said in a telephone interview from São Paulo, Brazil. “We cherish his contribution over these years.”

During the summer, Zimowski plays with Chicago’s Grant Park Orchestra in the world-renowned Grant Park Music Festival.

Across a career spanning more than 30 years, the violinist has performed under conductors Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Slatkin, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his idol, violinist Itzhak Perlman.

“The toughest part is maintaining your quality, your highest level,” he said.

In retirement, he’ll keep his Grant Park and Opera Southwest positions. He has flown home to Poland to visit his two sisters several times, but that may slow down, too.

“I’m becoming more American now,” Zimowski said. “And I admire more the achievements of this democracy.”

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