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Video: The Violinist and the 400-Year-Old Witness

by Jerome Weeks 30 Apr 2009 6:02 AM

This evening the Dallas Symphony Orchestra premieres a new concerto featuring Emanuel Borok, the DSO’s renowned concertmaster. The new work was commissioned for a special occasion. It celebrates the birthday — of Borok’s violin.


Video on Emanuel Borok and his four-centuries-old Amati violin:

  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

[Borok playing]

This is the adagio from Johann Sebastian Bach’s concerto for solo violin. When Bach wrote this music in 1720, the violin that Dallas Symphony concertmaster Emanuel Borok is playing was already more than 100 years old. William Shakespeare was alive in 1608 when this violin was newly made.

The 401-year-old instrument is an Amati, named for the Italian family who invented the modern violin. The Amatis took the stringed instrument used by church and dance groups and made it sound rich enough, strong enough to fill a concert hall. Borok’s violin was made by Girolamo or Heironymus (“Jerome”) Amati, one of the two brothers (the other was Antonio) who succeeded their father, Andrea, who founded the family business in the middle of the 1500s. It was Girolamo’s son, Niccolo, who became the greatest of the Amati luthiers, and it was he who probably taught the craft of violin-making to the famous Antonio Stradivari. There are some 700 Strads of varying quality still in existence (he made nearly 2,000 during his long life). Amatis usually do not sound as strong as the best Strads, but they are much rarer in number.

In 1976, when Borok played for the Boston Symphony, he wanted a new violin, a good one. The one he brought with him from Russia, he says, was a cigar box. And he was picky. So he contacted the great violin dealer Jacques Francais and tried out more than 200 instruments. Francais finally called him and told him he’d found the one.

BOROK: “And I started playing it in his shop in New York, and he says, ‘This is your violin. Pay for it and get out. I don’t want to see you anymore.’” [Laughs.]

WEEKS: “Did you think it was your violin?”

BOROK: “There was something about it that was very attractive. I felt – that’s me.”

Musician and instrument have come to share a life – and its scars. The Amati was smashed in the 1992 car wreck that also broke Borok’s right arm in two places — and which could have ended his career. It took many months for both violinist and violin to recover.


Emanuel Borok’s 1608 Amati (left) and a modern example

Borok has heard many of the theories about what makes Amati and Stradivarius violins so special. It’s the wood. It’s the varnish. It’s the cow’s urine in the varnish.

BOROK: “As an artist, I’m not interested in that too much.I like to think there’s some kind of mystery about it. And sometimes, when I play on it — and it’s an interactive process — I think it has a soul in it. It does. It’s almost tangible.”

So when the 400th birthday of his violin approached last year, the concertmaster decided he wanted to mark the occasion. First, he brought the violin back to its birthplace, Cremona, Italy, to play a recital. The Cremona newspaper happily announced that one of the town’s “citizens” had come home to visit.

And then Borok set about commissioning a major new work with the DSO. Through the advice of colleagues, he met composer Alexander Raskatov in Paris.

Like Borok, Raskatov is Russian and Jewish. And like many Russian Jews, they share some history.

BOROK: “His family was wiped out by the Nazis. My family – my mother’s entire family was killed. So we sort of understand what that means.”

In fact, Raskatov became fascinated by all the history the violin has lived through. His new concerto, called In Excelsis (“in the highest”), follows the Jews through wandering exile, the Holocaust and survival. The concerto is a mosaic of musical styles – including Baroque and Gypsy dances – making it a history of the Jews and a history of the violin.

BOROK: “This piece is not that common type of piece where a violin sings and melts the hearts away. Very unusual piece and I would like to point out to the audience that it is not experimental, it’s not anything earth-shatteringly new. But if they are open to some new sound by a violinist – not very much pretty stuff there, but very deep and very moving, very emotional.”

[Borok playing Beethoven’s violin concerto]

Video: The Creation of A Dream — a biography of Emanuel Borok:

  • I enjoyed the video interview of Borok and his Amanti. Well done Jerome Weeks!.

    Basho might write:

    Old violin
    new notes

  • Well, Basho would have done it in a full-fledged haiku, complete with seasonal reference.

    My old violin
    the color of autumn leaves
    it still sounds like spring

    • Anonymous

      This is so beautifully put. May I use it on my stationary?

      Emanuel Borok

      • It’s all yours. I’d be honored.

        • Jim Furrow

          I have a 400 plus year old violin , it was made in Belguim , would like to sell it to someone who would use it. It has amazing tone.