A graduate of Yale, Gerald Elias has been a Boston Symphony violinist, Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony since 1988, Adjunct Professor of Music at the University of Utah, first violinist of the Abramyan String Quartet, and Music Director of the Vivaldi Candlelight concert series.
His novels include Devil's Trill, Danse Macabre, Death and the Maiden, and the recently released Death and Transfiguration.
Raymond Taras was Willy Brandt Professor at Sweden's Malmö University for 2010–11. He was director of Tulane University's world literature program before Hurricane Katrina forced its closure. He is the author of numerous scholarly books on nationalism and identities in Europe.
Taras and Elias's exchange over Death and Transfiguration:
Taras: This novel is the fourth in a series featuring a blind retired violinist, Daniel Jacobus, who is drawn into a series of intrigues unique to performers in the world of classical music. Elias’s intimate familiarity with this cryptic milieu allows him to lay bare much of its mystique. Death and Transfiguration is a study of the towering role of the conductor - the diurnal tensions, conflicts and pathologies, as well as the extraordinary artistic achievements that are associated with this figure. I interviewed Elias in late June in Salt Lake City, shortly after his return from a tour of Peru and just before his engagement with the Boston Symphony for this year’s Tanglewood Festival.Learn more about the book and author at Gerald Elias' website.
A theme in the Jacobus series - and highlighted in this novel - is the equilibrium between artistic and commercial success in the world of classical music. Vaclav Herza is a champion of classical music defending it from encroachment by financial interests. Have we reached a tipping point today where commercial goals have become paramount?
Elias: Each individual orchestra determines the balance. The Chicago Symphony resists commercialization while the Boston Symphony has been accepting of it for over a century with the Boston Pops and has learned to do it at a very high level. The general trend is towards more and more commercialization. In the worst case it can lead to the point where the core product becomes almost vestigial. With Herza, I want to show that even the worst villains are multidimensional. This allows the reader to examine what the character is saying. I detest Herza as a person but I am sympathetic to what he says about music.
This novel is a battle of the octogenarians. One has the moral high ground, the other the artistic high ground. Can one person hold both high grounds?
Jacobus is on the artistic high ground and is an equal to Herza. After all, he had turned his back on where he perceived the world of classical music was going. Regarding morality, the core of Jacobus’ humanity lies under several layers of crustiness. That is not the case with Herza. His approach to music is as an extension of his ego, possessing a unique internal power that no one can stand up to. But this is also the context that allows Herza to bask in hero worship and want to be an Elvis. It’s a rare trait, especially in a physically decrepit character like Herza. So the novel is about a battle of wills between the two.
Death and Transfiguration examines how people’s personalities change when confronted with authority. In orchestras you simply do not argue with a conductor. This is probably healthy because there has to be someone to govern the sound. A good conductor needs to be the one with a clear conviction about the music.
In this series you are exceptionally deft in depicting the national, ethnic and religious identities of characters. You make the reader aware that they matter – yet you avoid the use of stereotypes, profiling, ethnic jokes (though viola and trumpet players are not so lucky). Is this skill the result of the observations you recorded during your extensive international travels?
Today’s political climate is based on division, and people are judged by their positions on political issues, which is unfortunate. There is a complexity about most people that means there should almost always be areas where people can connect with each other. There are national characteristics – in Japan Herza was uniformly adulated and could feel like the god he thought he was - but at the same time there is a huge spectrum of personalities embodying them. In this novel we have the contrasting Czech characters of Jan Hus and Elena Garnisova, illustrating the entire range of personalities found in one culture. One wonderful thing about the music profession is that among musicians from different cultures, more commonalities than differences exist. Stock characters have a place only in comic books.
Are most conductors alpha males?
The good conductors often are alpha males. Telling a hundred qualified people what to do almost always requires a dominating temperament. It leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy: the confident conductor will become disliked. These days orchestras function more than ever as corporate entities, and a conductor’s claim to fame is based more on what other orchestras they guest-conduct than the orchestra for which he’s the music director. In addition, the conductor’s leverage over hiring is not what it used to be though his view still is decisive in identifying the artistic program and selecting the winners of auditions.
Will Jacobus feature in a future novel that might be titled Funeral Sonata?
The book titles are informed by the musical pieces and in turn they inform the stories. But I don’t want the titles to become a constraint. Choosing venues as titles might be a new interesting twist, for example The Concert Tour, or the Violin Shop. At present, though, I have been writing short stories that have nothing to do with music, but it’s possible the Jacobus series or even some thrillers might be in the offing.
Interview: Gerald Elias (October 2009).
The Page 69 Test: Devil's Trill.
Writers Read: Gerald Elias.
The Page 69 Test: Danse Macabre.
My Book, The Movie: Devil's Trill and Danse Macabre.
The Page 69 Test: Death and the Maiden.
Interview: Gerald Elias (November 2011).