For 25 years, Emanuel Borok was concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. With his 400-year-old violin, he helped the orchestra tune before each performance. Borok died Jan. 4. He was 75. KERA Contributor Quin Mathews interviewed Borok several times; they were friends. Mathews turned to his archives to share this remembrance of the artist and his instrument. You can click above to hear a longer version of the piece that aired on KERA FM.
Violinist Emanuel Borok’s life was a pilgrimage—about art, a violin, and a lifelong pursuit of beauty
For 25 years, Borok was the concertmaster, the lead violinst, of the Dallas Symphony. Some friends called him Manny. But he was usually Emanuel to me, because he had a formal bearing.
Borok’s musical career began when he was a child in Riga, Latvia.
“My father, who was a clock-maker, had a cousin who was a piano teacher,” says Borok. “When I was about five years old, and she said to him ‘Why don’t you teach your boy how to play an instrument, like piano?’ ‘Oh no, I don’t like the piano.’ He always liked the violin, so—off we went!
“Childhood was tough. I had no childhood to speak of. I never played ball outside.”
But in the competitive arena of Russian violin, he rose quickly.
“I had experience playing in professional orchestras just one season prior to landing a prestigious seat in the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, the second concertmaster, which meant I was second chair in the orchestra.”
But Russia couldn’t hold him.
“My main concern from living in Russia was I was so isolated from what was going on,” he says. “The ability to travel was not available to us. All I wanted, to get out of there. I didn’t want to be rich, poor. I just didn’t want to live in Russia. I wanted to live in the free world.”
Under world pressure, the Soviets in the early 1970s began to let Jews like Borok leave. But it came at a cost.
“I applied for a visa to emigrate and I became a persona non grata. One day I went to rehearsal and I didn’t even play a single note. I was told I was not welcome there, and I got off the stage and went home. And that was it.”
By a unanimous vote, Borok’s colleagues, his friends, expelled him from the orchestra.
“And when I came to America, interestingly enough, I had thirty cents in my pocket. That’s all I had to my name.”
He got not just a job but the prestigious position of associate concertmaster in the Boston Symphony and concertmaster of the Boston Pops. But he was lacking something his new colleagues had, a fine instrument.
“So I started my search for a violin. It took me about two years and about two hundred violins to try until I came upon this one.”
In his studio in Dallas, he opens a violin case and pulls back a soft velvet covering.
“That is the Amati, made by two brothers, Antonio and Hieronymus, in 1608 in Cremona, Italy.”
His instrument comes from the early days of serious violin making, decades before the famous Stradiveri. All the great violins of that period come from a few workshops in the same block of this northern Italian city.
“I’ve had this violin since 1976…. It’s the best violin I’ve ever owned, the best violin I will ever own. It’s been with me through challenges, concerts I’ve played with it all over the world…and of course, it’s part of my life. It’s inseparable, in a way, from who I am. The fact that it comes from Italy, which I love so much, the fact that it was made in Cremona, I’ve never been to Cremona, all over Italy but never to Cremona. So you put all these things together and it says to me, ah, what a wonderful thing it would be to take it back and to have a concert there and play it for the people.”
He got his chance. In 2008, in Cremona, an enthusiastic audience welcomes home a 400-year-old violin and its kindred spirit on his own journey, the violinist.
“It has a soul. We always like to say the violin has a soul…we like to believe that, and the more we believe that, the deeper our relationship with our instruments is.”
In the courtyard of a palazzo in Cremona, Borok brings alive an adagio by Bach, who was born 70 years after the Amati family created this violin.
Playing the violin is a passion, says Borok.
“Oh hoh! Of course, ninety percent. For me, maybe ninety-five.”
In his teaching and performing, with his precious violin, Emanuel Borok brought passion and beauty to his adopted city of Dallas.