Putting New Wine in an Old Bottle

I’m sure this is old news in the contemporary music blogosphere by now, but I was interested to read this article about Emanuel Borok, concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony, and his recent commission to commemorate the 400th birthday of his violin. It struck me as a quirky but absolutely admirable reason to request a new piece, and the article seems to indicate that the project was a success for all involved: Borok sold the DSO on the commission, composer Alexander Raskatov got to collaborate on a new concerto, and reviews indicate that the piece was well-received. Obviously, not every violinist owns a nigh-quincentenarian Amati like Borok’s, but it would be great to see more performers celebrating their ancient axes with brand-new pieces.

I did find it somewhat remarkable, however, that Borok wasn’t particularly interested in the measurable acoustic properties of his instrument. We have the technology to expose quite a bit about what makes a certain violin sound the way it sounds–witness, for instance, the Chladni patterns that form when the back plate of a violin is excited. When I first starting reading the article about Borok, I assumed that he’d meant to commission a piece written with the spectral idiosyncrasies of the Amati in mind.

Unfortunately, I imagine this would have been a much more difficult sell to the DSO’s decision-makers. The piece that Raskatov ultimately wrote, a “history of Jews and a history of the violin,” as Jerome Weeks describes it, has the sort of conceit that is immediately graspable: Although it deals at times with unquestionably dark subject matter, it’s very easy to explain, as Weeks does, what the concerto is about. On the other hand, a piece predicated on highly specific acoustic phenomena might make a huge impression in the concert hall at the premiere, but it’s probably tough to convey that impact in a conference room. Ironically, had Borok been a professor of applied music writing a proposal for a research grant alongside Raskatov, it’s likely that a piece dedicated to exploring the acoustic qualities of his violin would have fared better than what Borok himself calls “not anything earth-shatteringly new.”

In a perfect world, Borok and Raskatov might have come up with a piece that hinges on a metaphorical relationship, say, between the science of the violin and the humanistic story they wanted to tell; these two aesthetic goals are by no means mutually exclusive. And, indeed, it’s quite possible that Raskatov had those acoustic considerations in mind when he wrote the piece, but he (or Borok, or the author of the article) didn’t feel that they should occupy too much of that valuable mainstream media real estate. In any event, I’m curious to hear the piece.

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