Gerald Elias Musican and Author

Tanglewood Violinist and Mystery Writer

By: - Nov 04, 2012

Charles Giuliano We met during the recent WordFest at The Mount. You gave a reading, performed on violin, and participated in a panel discussion. Our dialogue began when you commented on my Tanglewood sweat shirt. Can we start by discussing your years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood?  What led you to a life in music? Can you describe some of the frustrations that led to leaving the BSO and relocating in Salt Lake City? What is your current role in music?

Gerald Elias Unlike what you're led to believe in Hollywood movies, I did not have a burning passion to become a musician when I was a kid. Rather my father asked me, "Do you want to play the violin."  Notice there's no question mark at the end of that sentence.  Making music my profession was the result of good training, good support, and a lot of good luck. Fortunately for my musical growth, my parents--music lovers who had never played an instrument--had the record player spinning Beethoven and Tchaikovsky LPs all the time, and I had an older brother and sister who played the violin and piano, respectively.

Though I played as much baseball (and football and basketball and bowling) as I did violin, I made rapid progress on the latter, without question due in great part to the excellence of my first violin teacher, Amadeo "Bill" Liva.  As time went on, I came to love and understand the classical repertoire, and I greatly enjoyed the social interaction of being in various school and youth orchestras, and I even started enjoying practicing a little.

I attended two institutions of higher education that emphasized academics at least as much as music, Oberlin College and Yale University, because as much as music had become a significant part of my life, I was as seriously interested in other fields as well--anthropology, English, and political science, to name a few.

With graduation from my Master's program lurking around the corner it was time to figure out how I was going to pay for my college loans, so in 1975 I auditioned for the Boston Symphony, a very convenient choice as it was only a two-hour drive from New Haven to Boston.  I'm not sure my Fiat could have taken me much farther.

Thus at the age of twenty-two my career as a full-time orchestral musician began.  At first I was in awe of the magnificence of the orchestra and the extraordinary skill of its music director, Maestro Seiji Ozawa.  After several years, however, the gloss started to wear off.  The Pops season, for example, was a grueling six nights per week for eight weeks, plus rehearsals and recording sessions.  The Tanglewood season was (and still is) eight weeks long with three different programs every weekend.  And as much as Maestro Ozawa impressed audiences--and I am in full agreement of how impressive he was--his weak spot  was the classical core of the repertoire, which unfortunately for me is the music I love the most--Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms, for example.

So after about ten years I started auditioning for concertmaster and associate concertmaster positions in other orchestras.  There were other factors as well.  We were finding life in the Boston area too expensive and too hectic; I was having to commute 45 minutes each way from Beverly--the closest town where we could afford a house--which meant up to three hours a day commuting when we had a morning rehearsal and evening concert.  This while we had two toddlers.  Then there was the question of where they would go to school.  We were determined they would have a public school education, yet at the time Beverly schools were not up to the standard we hoped for.  Also, my wife, Cecily, is originally from Oregon, and had always hoped to move back West.  (I've always loved the outdoors, too, so I seconded the motion.)

As luck would have it, in 1988 I played perhaps my best audition ever for the Utah Symphony concertmaster position. The move to this orchestra in particular was especially exciting because, 1) the music director was Joseph Silverstein, former concertmaster of the Boston Symphony and my former teacher at Yale, and 2) my new stand partner, Ralph Matson, had been one of my closest friends at both Oberlin and Yale.  Though I don't believe in these things, it truly seemed like it was meant to be.

Once in Salt Lake City, things really blossomed for me.  I got opportunities to do things that just wouldn't have been available to me in Boston, where I had been a "mere" section player.  For example, I was almost immediately hired to the faculty of the University of Utah.  I got calls from some of the most talented high school students, asking me to teach them.  I gave recitals that people actually attended and was invited to play on chamber music series.  I had some of my own compositions performed, even by the Utah Symphony itself.  I helped create the Abramyan String Quartet which received a great deal of local renown during its ten years of existence.  Finally, I started doing some conducting of my own, and have been music director of the Vivaldi by Candlelight concert series for the past nine years.

I've always been a pretty restless person and after some indeterminate period of time I need to make changes.  So when I was offered the opportunity to have my first book published in 2008, I immediately jumped into my new field.  After a few years I realized I couldn't do everything, so in 2011 I resigned my position from the Utah Symphony in order to spend more time concertizing on my own, and of course to write more books.  That the books have been about the music world made the transition all the easier.

CG When we attend Tanglewood concerts, with the chorus, we see as many as 100 musicians on stage. You have been a part of that mass of musicians. During WordFest I asked a panel about exploring the dark side in their writing and how that lingers in the psyche. When you go deeply into researching and writing, or performing a character, how, at the end of the day, do you brush that off, have dinner, a bit of relaxation, and a restful night of sleep? Do all of those characters, performances and creative acts hang about in our subconscious, like a cubist painting, invading and haunting the integration of a persona?

There are occupational hazards to certain professions. All of those cop shows on TV are constantly exploring the collateral damage to individuals, their loved ones, and families. The current, brilliant Wallander series with Kenneth Branagh on PBS Masterpiece Mysteries is a very good example of just that kind of examination. He is a shattered, complex, tormented individual motivated to solve horrendous crimes but at the cost of his own soul and peace of mind.  The collateral damage to the detective of the riveting BBC series Luther, played by Idris Elba is yet another.

Because the moderator moved on to take other questions only one panelist answered. Later you caught up with me and said that you had wanted to answer the question. You talked about performing certain works over and over and then the occasional time when everything comes together and lingers with you.

Your response was fascinating but during that spontaneous moment there was no means to preserve the answer. May we return to that discussion? In a lifetime as a performer what sticks and haunts you? What is brushed off and forgotten by the time you pack up the violin and stop for a beer on the way home? 

There's no doubt that the goal for the composer who writes profound music, the conductor who interprets it, and the musicians who make it sound, is for the audience to be emotionally moved; to have their world view altered.  Or, if the intent of the music is simply to entertain, then the hope is that the audience will be joyfully entertained--in my view, no less valid a goal.

So as the music gets transferred from one hand to the next to the next and finally to the listener, it also gets transformed from concept into sound, a mysterious and miraculous process. 

At the same time, though, it's also a profession; a job.  Beethoven wrote the Fifth Symphony to inspire--for sure.  But he also wrote the Fifth Symphony in order to pay his rent (which he didn't always do).  He also had a habit of trying to get more than one publisher to publish the same piece in order to make more money.  Does that lessen his accomplishment?  In my mind, not in the least.  He, like all other composers, conductors, and musicians, had to make a living at their craft or else they couldn't continue in it.  And the greater the craftsmanship and the greater the appeal of the music, the better chance one has to sell the product.

That was perhaps the greatest challenge for me, and likely for most of my colleagues, as an orchestral musician--trying to reconcile the inspirational with the mundane.  Just consider that a major orchestra plays a hundred or more concerts a year, with at least as many rehearsals.  Over the course of decades, an orchestral musician will play a masterpiece like Beethoven's Seventh Symphony so often that after a while he can play it in his sleep--and sometimes he does.  Yet, the music is so great, and the skill of the musician so well-honed, that it is quite possible for an audience to respond with wild enthusiasm to a performance that the musician considered ho-hum.

Of course the greatest performances are when the stars are all aligned.  I recall my first encounter with Claudio Abbado in 1978 when I was a young violinist with the Boston Symphony.  We did a performance of the Mahler 2nd Symphony: inspired music, incredible conductor, one of the best orchestras in the world, a full-house at Symphony Hall primed for the event.  For me, and many of my colleagues, from first note to last, one of the most memorable concerts ever.

CG About the BSO you state “one of the best orchestras in the world.” You are also referring to 1978. Now, in 2012, is that still the case? You were a part of the orchestra under Ozawa and have expressed some concerns. One assumes that conductors have aspects in which they excel and other forms of music in which they do not. As we all know, the era of James Levine was problematic, largely because he was spread thin with a simultaneous commitment to the Metropolitan Opera, as well as chronic health issues, and long absences from the podium.

Mark Volpe had to rush to find replacements. These last two seasons Tanglewood has been without a full time conductor as the search continues. Including the years of medical leave, and the vacancy of the past two seasons, what kind of an impact does that have on “one of the best orchestras in the world?”

In particular, it would be interesting to have the point of view from a former member of that great orchestra. Even though you are now looking at the institution from the outside. What happens when the orchestra works with a series of guest conductors for several years? We assume that each maestro brings their approach to a work and makes different demands and expectations of the musicians.

We have attended a number of the Tanglewood open rehearsals. While classical music is not my field, even from a layman’s point of view, it was always fascinating to observe different approaches. We had the chance to experience both Levine and Ozawa. Levine often stopped and talked with the musicians, while Ozawa conducted more or less straight through, and then provided notes at the end. One could sense a very different style.

It seemed that Levine was much more of a teacher. During his time at Tanglewood one heard that he was much more involved in working with students and fellows; particularly those training for opera.

You have also suggested that the sum total of many frustrations led you to make life and career changes. Like writing mysteries, which is the context in which we met and will discuss.

For now can you give us an insider’s view of the ebb and flow of a world class orchestra. How critical is that year to year continuity? How damaging when it is disrupted?

When I joined the BSO in 1975 there was still a large contingent of European musicians who had come to the orchestra during the war years, and even a few who had played with Arturo Toscanini (March 25, 1867 – January 16, 1957) in the NBC Symphony.  And, amazingly enough, it wasn't even that long before my own arrival that the BSO had its first female member, principal flutist, Doriot Anthony Dwyer. 

Since that time, as you can imagine, there has been an almost total turnover in personnel.  Now, when I go to play with the orchestra at Tanglewood in the summer I can barely tell whether someone is a new member, or like me, a hired hand for the short-term.  There are only a handful still from the time I left in 1988 (to become associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony) let alone the post-War Europeans.

I mention all this to show that orchestras are always in transition, whether it be musicians or music directors.  Remarkably, though, the BSO has managed to retain its level of excellence.  The character of sound may have changed as the baton was passed, literally, from one music director to the next, but from my unique vantage point of being one of the gang for only two months a year, the standard of playing by the musicians has never been greater.  The first rehearsal in July with the guys never fails to blow me away with how well they play.

Regarding music directors, the public needs to be aware that there is almost never a consensus opinion within the orchestra.  Some musicians will love a conductor, and others can't stand him.  I shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that the reaction is in part a function of how deeply the musicians feel about the music, and in part about how the conductor treats the musicians.

Certainly, Seiji and Jimmy had their own styles, their own strengths and weaknesses, and it can't be denied that Jimmy's health-related absences had an unsettling effect on the orchestra, especially with last minute concert cancellations.  But it's a testament to the orchestra's greatness that it was able to manage to carry on regardless of who was waving the little stick. 

As you note, without a music director the BSO has a steady diet of guest conductors.  I don't think that has had as much of a negative impact--so far, anyway--as it would have back in the day when an orchestra worked with its music director for the vast majority of its programs.  A lot of guest conductors are a basic part of the programming equation with orchestras nowadays, and that also has both its pluses and minuses.

It has been a rewarding experience for me to play with the BSO at Tanglewood over the years, to have seen the orchestra change and at the same time continue to maintain its position as one of the Big Five orchestras.  At the same time, I don't regret having made the transition back in '88 to go to Utah.  I am by nature a restless person.  I like doing different things, so my decision to make a change had as much to do with me as with my life in Boston and the BSO. 

I know I gave up a lot, both musically and financially, to leave the orchestra, but on the other hand by being Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony I was afforded opportunities in Salt Lake City that most likely would never have come my way in Boston. Just to mention a few examples: I've taught some of the most talented students one could ever hope for. I had a string quartet from 1993-2003 (the Abramyan String Quartet) that was in residence at the University of Utah and was very highly regarded; we recorded and did six concert tours to Japan. I've had a bunch of my own compositions performed around the country, including by the Utah Symphony. I've been engaged to conduct both locally and abroad, and have been music director of the Vivaldi by Candlelight chamber music series for the past nine years.  And of course, I've had the opportunity to become an author, which probably wouldn't have happened if I had simply maintained the course in Boston.

At this point, things have come almost full circle.  Last year I retired from the Utah Symphony in order to pursue all those other things that have become important to me, and now, playing with my old buddies at Tanglewood is what gives me my symphony orchestra high!

CG You have now published four novels. This is a remarkable accomplishment as it came at mid life and from one who simultaneously pursued a career in music. What is unique about the books their conflation of passionate and very different interests.

Your website states that “I am particularly excited about my novels, Devil's Trill, Danse Macabre, Death and the Maiden and now Death and Transfiguration, excursions into the dark side of the classical music world, published by St. Martin's Press.

”In 2009 I was honored by Barnes and Noble, who selected Devil's Trill for their Discover Great New Writers fall catalog, in which was written: ‘Rich in music detail and featuring a fabulously roguish cast, Devil's Trill will delight music lovers and mystery fans alike. Danse Macabre, featuring the same roguish cast, was released in September, 2010.’

Danse Macabre was selected by Library Journal as one of their top five mysteries of 2010. My most recent book, Death and Transfiguration, with a June 2012 release, has already received three starred reviews.”

Can you walk us through the process of how you decided to pursue writing mysteries? One senses a level of accumulated agita and frustration with the music world. Indeed, as you say, “The dark side.”Are the novels a means of venting? That they have been a success indicates  reaching like minded readers.

We often hear that it is best then writers focus on what they know. Is that the case here? Are you creating from a base of life experience and professional knowledge? To what extent did you have to reach beyond what you already knew to create compelling, dramatic characters and complex plots? To create best selling mysteries have you combined what you know about music with imagination and creativity? That implies a very different motive and skill set than reading and performing a musical score.

GE I've enjoyed reading and writing even longer than I've played the violin. I have an older brother and sister, and when we were kids Artie had all the Hardy Boys mysteries and Estelle had all the Nancy Drew mysteries, so I had both!  From that time on I've been  hooked on mysteries.

Fast forward to 1997. I was on sabbatical leave from my position as associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony.  One of the projects I had on my list was to write a book primarily intended for violin students to be called "Violin Lessons."  The reason for the book was that over the course of teaching for thirty-plus years all over the world I saw that students had similar physical and mental challenges to playing the violin.  Each chapter was going to be a different lesson, not only a how-to guide for violin technique, but also encompassing issues like how to prepare for auditions, how to buy a violin that suits you, how to plan a career, and so on.

From my own experience as a student, though, I knew that if I had to read such a book I would fall asleep in five minutes, so I decided to weave a story around the lessons about a stolen Stradivarius retrieved by a blind violin teacher.

When I finished writing "Violin Lessons" in the spring of 1998, not knowing anything about the literary profession, I sent it to a fairly random list of agents and publishers, and it was--rightly--uniformly rejected.  The book sat on the shelf for a long time until a stroke of good luck arrived in the form of author Katharine Weber, to whom I had written only because I saw on one of her book jackets that she taught creative writing at Yale, my alma mater.  Katharine not only read my book (and, now knowing more about the literary world, that in itself is a small miracle), she liked it (!), gave me constructive criticism and helped connect me with an agent.

To make a long story short, over the next ten years the book morphed from a book that was 90% method study and 10% story, to a full-fledged traditional whodunnit in which the technical aspects of playing music are included only as they enlighten the plot or characters.  One of the things that helped in the transition was that what I had originally written regarding the challenges of playing the violin and of succeeding in the concert world, with just a little tweaking and exaggeration now became a set of frustrations, excess, and cause for conflict. Of course I drew upon my life in classical music to develop the characters and story ideas, but also drew upon my upbringing as a mystery reader to help me understand the structure of the book and expectations of the readers.

I shouldn't forget to say that along the way, at the appropriate urging of my agent, Josh Getzler, the title got changed to "Devil's Trill."

CG Can we focus more on the books and their characters? Particularly as they conflate seemingly disparate concerns focused on the performance and appreciation of music or the mayhem of the mystery novel genre.

We have discussed some of your frustrations and misgivings related to a life as a professional, classical musician. To what degree does the writing serve to explore some of those concerns in a constructive manner?

As I've mentioned, one of my hopes with my books is to show prospective young musicians something about the world in which they're thinking of dedicating their lives. I've found that a lot of students, including very talented ones, think that all they have to do is practice and their future will be secure.  At present, music schools do little to disabuse them of this misconception.  There is a lot of arbitrariness and luck involved on the road to success (or failure), even if one is able to attain the extraordinarily high level of skill and musicianship necessary just to be competitive. Knowing the right people and the ability to schmooze shouldn't be underestimated, either. 

I also hope that by exposing the general public to these issues, they will have a greater appreciation for the challenges of--in the case of a symphony orchestra, for example--performing a hundred concerts a year.  When you consider what goes into the presentation of just one concert--from the musicians' preparation all the way down to the printing of the program--it's absolutely miraculous.

CG Just what kind of aesthetic legerdemain is involved in bringing professionalism and success in one field into those required by another? It raises the familiar issue of can one be the servant of two masters? Like a lobster will one claw inevitably be larger and stronger than the other?

Let me assure you that, even though I've achieved a certain level of manual dexterity, there's no sleight of hand involved here. I've enjoyed writing as long as I've enjoyed music and by writing about music I've simply overlapping two "preexisting conditions" 
and hopefully not creating a new disease.  There are indeed times when one claw is bigger than the other--I spent much of the spring and summer concertizing, for instance--both claws are nevertheless still part of a single lobster.  For me, going back and forth is a healthy tension as I'm someone who needs a change of scenery--mental or geographical--on a regular basis.

CG Since you have succeeded in addressing this challenge perhaps you might give us some insights about what that entails and perhaps describe its collateral damage. It would be interesting to know the responses of colleagues; musicians who read the books, as well as fellow writers who hear you perform music.

I believe that my colleagues in the music field have been overwhelmingly positive in my exposé of the classical music world.  Of course I can't be sure of that because those that might think I'm "giving away" secrets or am unfairly disparaging probably wouldn't bring their thoughts to my attention.  I have been struck, however, by the number of emails I receive from musicians who describe frighteningly similar events in their own lives that match up to my fictionalized ones.

On the other side of the fence, I've received a lot of oohs and aahs from writers who have heard me play, commending me for being able to have a pair of seemingly disparate skills.  It's all very flattering, but I remind them that almost all the authors I've met also started out in another career: cops, lawyers, doctors, chefs, to name a few.  The only difference is that playing the violin is something that you can perform at a book event.

CG When the books were first published how did these disparate interests and concerns relate to their promotion and marketing? How did the publisher identify and market to a specific potential audience? Were they music lovers or fans of the mystery genre? Did that dialogue influence the direction and approach to writing the next novel and the ones that followed? Have you defined a niche and comfort zone in continuing the series of novels?

For better or worse--mainly worse--these days publishers leave much of the promotion to all but the highest volume authors.  In my case with St. Martin's Press, they have provided me with a publicist who has arranged book tours for me.  (I have to pay my own expenses, however.)  They have encouraged me to make extensive use of Facebook and Twitter, which doesn't cost anyone anything.  However, I have declined to use more than ten minutes a month on those anti-social media, since I find them repulsive. 

St. Martin's Press, a major publisher that represents hundreds of authors, has a tried-and-true marketing model from which it is reluctant to diverge.  And in fact, most people who read mysteries, including mine, are mystery lovers and not musicians, and those mystery lovers tend to be middle-aged women. I don't have the marketing statistics but that seems to be what the experts say.  
Because my books are a bit off the beaten track I have tried some nontraditional means of marketing them.  Those include selling books after my own performances, giving talks at book clubs and museums where I also perform, putting ads in concert program books, having my books reviewed by music journals, etc.

What I said earlier about getting into the music business ironically also applies to the writing profession.  Marketing appears to be at least as important as quality in making a book a success these days, so though I would of course love it if my books became best sellers, I am mainly interested in writing to the best of my ability and letting the chips fall where they may.

Gerald Elias website